Amongst horse people, one of the fastest ways to raise hackles or hostilities is to call someone a “surface worker.” It’s just one of those things that you don’t do in polite company. After all, one of the reasons people are drawn to horses is to enjoy a real and deep connection. To call them a “surface worker” is to accuse them of putting on a a circus act. Certainly, the relationship may look real and geniune; but it's not. It's not nothing but an act and fraud.
Given how the word is used and understood, I find it extremely ironic that so few people understand that “surface work” and it’s attendant ideas of conditioned response, sensitization, desensitization and instinct are actually very important to horse training. If you want to have any type of real relationship or meaningful communication, you need to do a lot of very tedious surface work to get there.
Anyone who has been deemed “good with horses” probably gets asked one particular question at some point: “What do you think that I should do to solve this problem that I and my horse are having?” While I know some who get annoyed or even frustrated by it, by far the majority of the experienced horse people seem to look forward to having their knowledge queried. After all, such a query is as an opportunity to share opinions and insights with an individual who actually wants the input. That doesn’t happen very often.
And more often than not, the more experienced hand is able to offer some insight that might have a positive impact on a horse-human partnership. When that happens, it is a tremendously good outcome. Other times, though, no amount of advice or insight will do anything for the human being or for the animal. There are a lot of reasons for this: the owner might be trying to manage a behavior beyond their ability, or the root causes might have an intractable physical or mental origin.
As a result, every experienced horse person (whether they be a trainer, riding instructor or long-time rider) should keep one particular line in their arsenal of tools. It shouldn’t be used often, but there are circumstances where it is not only warranted, but necessary.
It is possible to draw lessons on horsemanship from a tremendously diverse range of sources. For me, one of the most important has it’s roots in an unlikely place, a brief exchange between the Chesire Cat and Alice while she first toured Wonderland:
“Chesire Puss,” she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. “Come, it’s pleased so far” thought Alice, and she went on. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
When considering the important topics of how a horse’s body is balanced, or how to effectively communicate an idea; truer words have never been spoken. Think about it this way: for something to be labeled a journey, it must have a point or a a destination. To merely go about doing things isn’t any kind of travel, but only so much wandering (to put it kindly) or a sure indication that the traveler is lost (to put it accurately).
At some point in your travels, you need to have a destination and realize that it matters. If you want to travel to London, you are unlikely to do so via route of Buenos Aires. And if you want to turn a horse in a circle, you are unlikely to accomplish that goal by merely pulling on the head. Eventually, you must move the feet.
Various individuals wiser than myself have said it like this:
If you get control of the feet and the legs, the rest comes easy … Set it up so that he gets relief from moving his feet. horses can figure out so many things if you arrange it and have a little patience.
To restate this nugget of wisdom in the language of cause and effect, the ultimate effect (or destination) is how a horse moves its feet. Thus, to get a horse to accomplish a particular goal or to communicate an idea, it’s very important to make sure that you are effectively pushing your ideas to the end destination.
Let’s say that we are teaching a horse to lead, or asking for the hindquarters to move in response to a sideways tug on the rope. The desired outcome, whether it be lateral disengagement or forward motion, culminates in a single important end-point: movement in the desired direction. But there are a huge number of things which need to happen prior. First, the horse will likely relax and soften, looking in the desired direction. Next, the muscles along the horse’s back and rump will contract, causing it to rise. Then, the horse will begin to shift into the direction of travel. Finally, the desired foot moves and the horse is propelled through space. Each of the intermediary stages involve a different amount of energy and commitment. To reposition the head, or to shift the body, requires substantially less energy than to move the feet. But only the movement of the feet actually facilitate the end goal rather than serving as a intermediary point.
To really get an effective response from the horse, you need start with the end in mind. Thus, when asking for disengagement, you are asking for the feet to move, not for the head or the back. And while a good rider appreciates that there are many intermediate points to any behavior, and that providing a well timed release at any of them (often called rewarding the slightest try), will condition the horse to actively seek out the next step in the chain, you are still asking for the feet to move and not for the head to bend. Becoming obsessed about some intermediate step in the middle can lead to confusion and frustration.
All too often, I hear people complain that their horse is “stuck,” or “stiff,” or “being resistant.” Though the language describing the problem might be different, the behavior looks shockingly similar. First, the horse is physically stiff and may be actively pulling or pushing against the aid. Next, rather than having fluid and graceful motions, they are short and heavy – as though the horse were moving through molasses. Last, the there may be behavior typically associated with resistance –perhaps there is a kink in the tail, or the head is elevated, or the mouth locked.
All too often, the cause of these “problems” is the same: the rider isn’t communicating the message to the feet. Consider, what would happen, for a minute, if you attempted to disengage the horse’s hindquarters simply by dragging on the lead rope. Through sheer physical leverage, it is rather easy to forcibly position the horse’s head to the inside; but nearly everything else would be out of balance.
The majority of the body weight would be shifted outward, a position that makes it tremendously difficult for her to follow the feel of the rope. So when the horse does eventually move, rather than being a soft and willing response, it is far more likely that the horse will brace and pull away. Should this happen, the “resistance” has nothing to do with the horse’s frame of mind or intentions, and everything to do with position and motion.
Now, think about how the same goal (disengagement of the hind end) might be accomplished in the round pen with the horse at liberty. First, you teach the horse about motion: how to move forward when pressure is placed behind; how to slow, or change direction when pressure is placed in front; and how to hook on when the handler changes stance from assertive to inviting. Without the physical connection of the lead-rope you are forced to focus on the desired end-product, where the horse is moving; and to accomplish anything, you must effectively pushing the feet. When the motion does come, the head is automatically in the correct position. When you invite the horse to hook-on, the head follows the direction of motion. It just happens. With no resistance. And nothing should change when the leap rope is snapped back on. In many ways, the lead rope only exists to refine the already clear communication.
When the process happens in reverse, failure to think about destinations can make for some spectacular messes. We’ve all seen horses who are heavy on the forehand or behind the bit because head position (“collection”) was desired at the exclusion of movement. We’ve also seen horses that step behind while doing a turnabout for the same reason. In each case, it’s not about what the horse’s head is doing, but what the horse’s body is doing. As noted above, physical manipulation of the head does not result in mastery of motion. In fact, some of the worst disasters I’ve ever seen (as a riding instructor, clinician, or emergency response technician) occurred when an unfortunate rider made just this assumption.
So, rather than aim for having the head “in the right position,” instead focus on effectively rounding the horse’s back and getting the hind-end to engage. In this case, the use of seat and legs will have a far more potent influence on the position of the head than hands alone could ever hope to achieve. It’s the head that balances the feet, not the other way round.
Note: Earlier this afternoon, I came across a note on a horsemanship list that inspired a bit of writing. A very nice person was quoting a part of True Unity by Tom Dorrance. This gave me the opportunity to reminisce a little bit and think a few relatively deep thoughts. After I finished writing my response, I was quite taken with it (something doesn’t happen often) and I have, thus, decided to post most of it here.
Dear Margaret (name changed to protect the innocent),
While you may not know it, you just made my day. In the years since Tom and Bill Dorrance passed away, I haven't heard or seen much about either one of them. They have dropped from the casual conversation of most horse people that I associate with, their books don't come up with much frequency and I don't often hear their names. With their passing, Ray Hunt solidly stepped into the role of horsemanship’s grandfather and became the appeal of ultimate authority. About the same time, Tom's little blue book seemed to disappear. When trying to find a copy for a friend, I was alarmed to see that Amazon had it listed as out of print and "new" copies started from a heart stopping $115.
It seems that every introduction to horses or horsemanship must begin with some mystically beautiful scene: wild mustangs charging across the open plains, jaw-dropping feats of disciplined horsemanship, or breathtaking leaps during a majestic steeplechase. It is unfortunate that such beginnings often reek of propaganda and those who use them double as slick salesmen. Instead of the reality, such individuals choose to promote a beautiful mythology – which like any good mythology has elements of truth, but which have been distorted and manipulated.
Yes, it is true that horses are deeply beautiful creatures: majestic, graceful, intelligent, and wonderful; even spiritual. Nevertheless, they aren't mysterious or magical. Most who start out with horses often abandon the pursuit within a year, and even fewer remain after five years; and while I somewhat doubt some specific numbers I once heard cited (which claimed that the disenchanted were as high as 80%), I believe the trend. I also believe that an important reason why so many leave in frustration is that they never found the promised vision of sublime mystical perfection. The first time you mount a horse, the perfect moment immediately cracks and you are left with the grittiest parts of reality: horses are big, they have their own ideas, and those notions often don't match ours. Further, when you sit on their backs, you are utterly at their mercy. This, of course, is to say nothing of the mud, dust, shit and miscellaneous smells. That can be a lot of reality to absorb in a single session.
Nevertheless, even among those who passionately pursue horsemanship, there is often a tremendous degree of stagnation. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent some time as a traveling horse trainer. In three-day spurts, I would work with five or ten people at a time. We would talk about concerns or problems and together we would struggle for a solution. From this experience, several things became clear: many people struggle with a few simple issues, and nearly all of those issues arise from a relatively small number of fundamental behaviors. The particulars were always different – which was what made the job interesting – but those behaviors arose from gaps in foundational knowledge. What is regrettable is that the holes were so unnecessary. At some point, I decided to try and do something about this (which is how this screed began life). Since good beginnings predict successful conclusions, I thought I might share a few observations that I wish others had levered at me. These include a few rules, a few guidelines, and more than a few relatively good suggestions.