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Tools of the Trade

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Is Less Really More?

“The most important part of any piece of equipment is the hands that hold it” Monty Roberts


Walk into any tack room and you will undoubtedly see a dizzying array of tools. Mentally, now, make a list of all the ones you may own. Can you count ten? Fifteen? Over fifty! Then contemplate why you bought them, under whose advice and for what purpose? How often do you question their affects or effectiveness?

Many of you, I imagine, may have a large array of what might be termed classical or traditional tools; a simple head collar, a lead-rope, perhaps a range of bits, lunge cavessons, some side reins, a saddle or two, a bridle of course, and a collection of whips. Perhaps some of these are assigned to the cupboard and you have been experimenting with tools from the natural horsemanship camp; a variety of rope and/or pressure halters, some long lines, perhaps the odd Sainsbury’s shopping bag or stuffed glove on a stick, a plastic bottle with dried peas in, an old tarpaulin, a colourful umbrella and a ‘Carrot stick’ (aka a whip of course!). You may even have branched out into the reams of the more scientific approaches to horsemanship; having some ‘wraps’ (elasticated bandages used for TTouch & TTEAM techniques), a clicker and target along with food used for positive reinforcement training. With the vast array of tools available to the modern horseman today, plus the strong views and opinions attached to them it is no surprise that it is a difficult and potentially contentious topic to talk about.

Many of these tools will seem innocent enough to most (especially if they just stay in the cupboard!) and some might be described as a ‘must have’ or the best thing since sliced bread! Yet others may be perceived as potential tools of torture that are only used for the infliction of pain and suffering! Herein lies the problem of perception, as it is in my opinion and experience that ALL of these tools can be misused or abused, causing potential pain, stress and anxiety to our horses, especially when used without the appropriate knowledge, compassion and understanding.

Many tools have become synonymous with certain training methods or techniques like the double bridle and spurs with the higher levels of competitive dressage, the Round Pen and Dually Halter with Monty Roberts’ techniques, the rope halter and carrot stick with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and the clicker and food treats with clicker training. As such they are often judged and criticized due to this relationship with a trainers approach or equine discipline rather than the possible advantages and disadvantages of the tools themselves.

Exploring bridge and target training with Shawa Karrasch, creating a whole new emotional state through the use of an appetitve stimulus. Photo by Natalie Bourchier photography.
Exploring bridge and target training with Shawa Karrasch, creating a whole new emotional state through the use of an appetitve stimulus.
Photo by Natalie Bourchier photography.

Over the past 2 years I have been in a unique and privileged position as the founder and chairperson of the Understanding Equus ‘Meeting of Minds’ program (MOM). Its aim is to explore horse / human partnerships with a wide variety of highly skilled, experienced and well renowned trainers. Of course such trainers advocate the use of many different tools. Yet at the heart of the MOM approach is a non-judgmental stance where participants and trainers alike have the opportunity to examine and question in detail cutting edge techniques and explore these different tools, advances and philosophies, always with the aim to identify the underlying keys and foundations to good horsemanship, irrespective of the tools themselves.

No Pain no Gain?

Many researchers have started to look at a variety of tools and their affects on horses physically and mentally as well as on performance. One would hope that these could shed some light or clarity on the situation, yet we are presented with some fascinating, but at times conflicting, results. For example researchers from the University of Sydney urged people to rethink the use of Round Pen training by Monty Roberts, suggesting that some of his techniques applied emotional pressure to horses as their responses were based on fear and safety. Alternatively research done in the UK found that horses trained using these same methods and tools had significantly lower maximum heart rates when taking their first saddle and rider when compared to a British conventional training method.

Other research done by the innovative and controversial Alexander Nevzorov demonstrate the potentially damaging effects of the bit and the saddle and as such he is calling for a revolution suggesting a complete ban of all competitive equine sports that use such tools. These demonstrate some of the conflicting advice and the wide range of views and opinions in the horse world today.

As a horse trainer experienced in working with young and remedial horses, initially with the more traditional approaches, then later adopting a more holistic one, I have certainly used and experienced a wide variety of tools and techniques. Whilst listening to the horses themselves, this experience has led me to believe that there is no ‘one way’ or all encompassing tool, and what works for one horse or horse-human partnership does not mean it will work for all. In fact I believe these judgments help no one, as we (and the horses) are each on our own unique spiral of learning, with different past experiences and learnt behaviours and as such we will react and respond differently to each method or tool.

Over recent years my eyes have been opened to the possibilities and intricacies of liberty play being taken to a whole new level by some of the more cutting edge trainers like Carolyn Resnick and Klaus Hempfling. Along with the art and subtleties of classical riding, these are techniques that are achieving balance and collection with nothing more than a simple cordeo (neck rope). And this is where we start to see the importance of our minds and attitudes along with the power of our energy and intention. It now seems to me that the greatest and most powerful tool we have at our disposal is OURSELVES!! Our own bodies, our senses and most importantly our minds and attitudes.

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” – Winston Churchill

If we can start to look beyond the tools themselves and start to focus on ourselves, developing our knowledge, understanding and skills then we will start to truly understand such concepts as ‘less is more’ or ‘slow is fast’. Confusing and contradictory terms in themselves but once you develop a good understanding of equine & human behaviour, learning theories, anatomy and biomechanics and equine science it all starts to make sense and the tools themselves can become irrelevant.

“It’s not what you use, it’s how you use what you use” – Monty Roberts.

Always working on 'ourselves' to create balance and lightness with Amanda Barton. Photo by Natalie Bourchier photography.
Always working on ‘ourselves’ to create balance and lightness with Amanda Barton. Photo by Natalie Bourchier photography.

For example the recent article in Equine Science entitled; Does whip use improve show jumping performance? found that “Those who used the whip were statistically less likely to achieve a clear round…elite riders were statistically more likely to achieve faults if the whip was used.” So what does this say about the effectiveness of the tools that so many of us feel so reliant on?

In fact I would go so far as to suggest that most of the tools we use are in fact just glorified comfort blankets, things that we feel we need to remain safe and secure. Many give us the illusion of control over our horses or give us confidence in ourselves when used as a ‘communication tool’ or ‘extension of ourselves’….

I believe good horsemanship understands the horse physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, bringing all these aspects together to encourage balance in mind and body. A good understanding of equine communication & behaviour is essential to staying safe, not one specific tool. Self-awareness and an understanding of how we can influence our horses through our energy and intention will create softness and improve our feel, timing and balance. The
ability to be present & focused in the moment to truly observe and ‘read your horse’, to attune ourselves to our horses and communicate with understanding and empathy, to step back and adapt what you are doing with sensitivity & creativity are just a few of the vital keys to optimizing our partnerships.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.” – Albert Einstein

I believe we can learn something from everyone even if it is how or what we don’t want to do. So for the sake of the horses, I encourage you to keep an open mind, a non-judgemental manner and strive to add to your toolbox by increasing your knowledge, understanding and skills, always listening to the horses and working on the improvement of ourselves. You may then just find that in fact ‘Less IS More’ and no pain is required!!

“Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman.

Research Articles
Australian research on Round pen techniques: http://phys.org/news/2012-07-urge-rethink-monty-roberts-horse.html

UK research with Monty Roberts – http://horsetalk.co.nz/2012/07/24/monty-roberts-fights-science-with-science/#axzz2gCLQX2Va

Alexander Nevzorov – The effects of the bit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkxOp_xfVEg

Does whip use improve showjumping performance: www.equinescienceupdate.com/

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