What’s Happened to Good Horsemanship?

By Ross Jacobs

Most of my clinics are attended by people with a wide range of experience and interests. As well as many amateur and occasional riders I often meet very experienced horse people at my clinics. Many have been riding most of their life. Some have even competed successfully at a high level in various disciplines. I get a smattering of trainers from various horse sports. A few have been judges in various disciplines such as dressage or jumping, reining, halter breed classes etc. These are people will a lot of experience and many skills in their chosen field.

When I first started doing clinics, things that the experienced folk needed helping with often surprised me. I remember one dressage rider who was competing at Prix St George level wanting help teaching her horse to politely load into a trailer. Another person who educated reining horses for a living needed tips on catching a horse. Then there was the person that was a top-level dressage judge in Australia whose horses would always nip and then walk away when they mounted. Even with the amateur riders who have regular instruction, I am sometimes dismayed at why their instructor has not been able to help with the most simple issues like ear shyness.

These are just a few examples of experiences that mystify me.

It seems that in this era, horsemanship has become a specialized discipline in itself. When I was a kid, the basic skills of being good around horses were part of everything we did. If a horse would throw its head during bridling it was fixed before we worried about going out to the jumping paddock. Yet, I see horses at clinics that have been ridden for years and fuss about bridling with no recognition from the rider that this might be a problem. How has this lack of recognition crept into our work with horses?

I’ve been reading a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (thanks Charity for recommending it). Harari describes that Neanderthal humans had bigger brains than us Sapiens. One theory for this suggests that Neanderthals were poor communicators and did not work well collectively with other Neanderthals. This meant that each Neanderthal needed to know how to track and kill an animal and what plants were edible and how to read the stars and weather and how to cook etc. But Sapiens learned to communicate and share knowledge, so we evolved to use a collective knowledge where each person could specialize and share their expertise with the group. This meant that each individual Sapien needed to know less about the world than an individual Neanderthal.

Reading this book began me wondering is this why so many riders understand so little about the basics of horsemanship? Have we become a group of riders where each individual becomes an expert specialist and uses the collective knowledge of other specialists to care for, train and ride horses?

I do appreciate the power of collective knowledge, but there is a problem that stems from such a dependency on others. It means that we get lazy and don’t inform ourselves enough to know which specialist to believe.

For example, my specialty is training people to train horses to follow a direction with their thought to produce a performance and build a foundational relationship. That’s what I do for a living (or try to do). But at the same time, I have learned a working knowledge of saddle fitting, hoof care and trimming, dental care, gear and gear fitting, basic nutrition, good riding, stable and trailer design, arena and yard design, correct movement and gait analysis, soundness, veterinary care etc.

My knowledge in these areas is not specialized, but general and broad. I would not trust myself to diagnose and treat an injured back or to perform a corrective trim on a horse. But I do know enough to know when a horse is sore and when the feet are unbalanced and if a saddle fits well or not and why. I do know enough to assess equipment or why a trailer is unsuitable for a particular horse.

I also know enough to know when I don’t know enough and require input from more expert opinions. But in saying that I feel I am informed enough to know which expert opinion to use and which not to use for most things.

I often find horse people do not have a broad knowledge of the basic information that most people did going back say 100 years or so ago. In the past, there was not the specialization that we see today. The onus of knowing how to treat a horse’s teeth or train a horse to load into a trailer or know what bit to use was on the owner, not specialist consultants that we have available today.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe it is fantastic that we have such expert knowledge available to us. But what concerns me is that we rely on other people to tell us what we should at least have a working knowledge about. Every time somebody asks me to check the fit of their saddle on their horse, there is always a group of people who gather around to watch and ask questions. Something as important but mundane as knowing if your saddle fits should not be in the realm of a specialist. In my opinion, saddle fitting is basic enough that every horse person should have a working knowledge of it. I include in that category things such as knowing when your horse’s hooves are balanced, teaching to lead, tie up and loading on and off a trailer, catching, body condition, basic medical treatment, assessment of conformation and movement, teaching to be quiet for bridling and saddling – the list could go on.

If these are things that you struggle with, please don’t think I am pointing the finger at you and saying “bad owner.” That’s not the purpose of this essay. Instead, I want to inspire you to gain as much knowledge as you can about the things you presently rely on other people to tell you. Take an interest in understanding things like proper hoof trim and how to develop a quiet mind in a horse and what makes a good trailer or a bad one. Information is so accessible nowadays that there is no obstacle to obtaining it if you have the will. The more we rely on other people for answers the more we are susceptible to being lead down the wrong path at the expense of our wallets and our horse’s well-being.

Photo: Neandethals (left) dominated the earth because of the individual knowledge, until Sapiens (us) came along with our collective knowledge and out-competed them into extinction.


Read more from Ross, buy his books or find out about attending one of his clinics by visiting his website here: http://www.goodhorsemanship.com.au/  or hang out with him on facebook.


Republished with permission.

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