Annie – OK, let’s get started. The first question I’d like to ask is this: I’m really not clear what natural horsemanship is?
Tom – No, nor am I. Maybe you need to ask someone who practises it.
Annie – I thought that’s what you did? You do something different to other people don’t you?
Tom – Well, not really. If you look back through old horse books, you can see that there is not much going on now that didn’t go on then. It seems to me that a lot of people who strive to improve their horsemanship end up with very similar realisations.
Annie – What realisations?
Tom – Well, central to everything is the need for a relaxed horse. That is the first and foremost job that needs to be done. Trying to teach or work with an unrelaxed horse is neither effective or enjoyable.
Annie – So how do you recommend we get the horse to relax?
Tom – My first priority is to provide the horse with the mental security that he needs. Get the horse’s attention, then provide clear boundaries of personal space and be in control of the movement. If you think about it, this is often 180 degrees opposite to what a lot of owners give their horses. Once you have that established, then you need to practise being consistent and clear in your instructions. Horses do not relax with grey areas and mixed messages.
Annie – Is this something you can do pretty quickly?
Tom – It varies from horse to horse. Some horses will immediately accept the situation and be only too happy to trust me. Others may have more difficulty: maybe because of some history or perhaps occasionally their temperament, they just may not be able to make that decision to trust so easily. In those situations, I continue to present to the horse a simple offer of security and consistency, and the job takes however long it takes.
Annie – So does your theory work with every horse? How long would you carry on before you gave up on a horse, for example?
Tom – It’s not really ‘my theory’ – but anyway, most horses will come round sooner or later. Some horses have very good reasons not to believe that a human has their best interests at heart – I have met a few where I have thought, ‘No, it’s too dangerous and not worth it’, but there’s usually someone who will give them a go.
Annie – I’ve heard you say that you no longer work with problem horses. Surely anyone can work with horses that don’t have problems?
Tom – What I sometimes say is this: life is not forever, so do the work you enjoy doing. I’ve met too many people struggling on, out of some sense of duty and against all the odds, with totally inappropriate horses. Enjoy your horse, that’s all I’m saying. Right now, one of my horses has several fairly difficult issues, some may say problems, but I am enjoying working with her, so that’s fine.
Annie – Can you talk a bit about the way you work with horses? I’ve watched you work and listened to you comment as you go, and you do have some fairly strong ideas about how things should be.
Tom – I have a fairly strong paradigm, that’s true. I don’t like to see confused horses, so it is important their owners are not confused, that’s for sure. I have a clear job that I want my horse to do. Put simply, I want my horse to be able to take me safely where I want to go, how I want him to go and at the speed I want to go – that is my aim. I want my horse to do the work – why have a dog and bark yourself, that’s the way I see it. When I watch some riders, they seem to be doing all the work – my idea is to sit and relax and use the horse’s energy, not mine. Surprisingly, horses know how to do pretty much all the things we ask of them – they can walk, stop, trot, canter, etc, without us showing them how, they’ve been at it since they were foals. If you are working hard to get all this, then I’d be thinking maybe you have trained your horse to do some things the opposite way to what I would have done. You see some people pulling around on the horse’s mouth, or holding on tight to the reins, and driving the horse into the bit – I don’t get all that. I absolutely start from the point of view: if it’s a struggle, it’s most probably wrong.
Annie – So are you saying you should just let your horse go along all strung out? You know people aren’t going to go for that.
Tom – No, I’m not saying that at all, but what I am saying is that a horse should be able to balance itself. There are plenty of good horse people who can ride their horses nicely without micro-managing them. How can you train your horse to understand the bit if you’re forever hanging on to it? He will never learn – or perhaps what I should say is that what he will learn is to tolerate the illogical pressure which, for some reason he doesn’t understand, you are putting in his mouth.
Annie – I’m sorry, can you explain what you mean there about the bit?
Tom – Sure. I don’t want to train my horse to pull or lean on the bit. I want him to relax with the bit so that we can communicate through it. Maybe the difference is I want my horse to understand pressure and release. I don’t want to feel a ton of weight – or really any weight – in my hands. For one thing, if I have to use my muscles to hold up my horse – well, that’s me doing the work. Also, for those riders who want to collect up their horse or whatever you want to call it, if your horse is relaxed and soft with the bit then you can pick him up any time you like. These are my aims, this is what I am working towards. I want my horse to be so good that if a really accomplished rider comes along I can hand them the horse and they will think, ‘Yes, Tom, you have made a good start here. This horse is a pleasure, and from this point I will easily be able to take things on to a higher level’.
Annie – I understand what you are saying, Tom. My last question is this. Why do you like working with horses?
Tom – Because, Annie, when I feel my horse working with me, 100% concentrated and focused on the job, soft and relaxed within himself, happy in his work, that is a good feeling. The potential at that point feels almost infinite!
Tom's book ‘Be With Your Horse’, and details of his clinics are available at www.bewithyourhorse.com
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