Painty Horse and me in 2002. What does Painty's facial expression convey to you? (Karin Dyson photo)
Oliver and me playing "fetch". Oliver has just picked up the lead rope at my request and is so pleased with himself that he just has to play with it before handing it to me. The secret to all "training" is to get the horse to where he wants to do what you want him to do. Fun and happiness should be built into every session.
Oliver enjoying a scratch to a favorite itchy spot. We notice that few riders of other schools reward their horses so generously. I teach students how and when to touch their horses to obtain maximum positive effect. The palms of our hands should frequently be on our horses' bodies. "Always reward the smallest change and the slightest try."
OUR UNIQUE ATTITUDE AND APPROACH
So what is this "attitude and approach" that makes Dr. Deb's school of horsemanship so all-fired different? Here are some points that form the basis for our philosophy, and which form the underlying basis for all our interactions with horses. Please pause to consider:
HORSES ARE SMART AND HAPPY TO LEARN: We believe that horses are just as conscious and aware, just as thoughtful, just as intelligent as are people. The difference lies merely in the "style" of consciousness. We respect the fact that horses are very smart, extremely good at picking up details, and can learn new things after only one or two tries. Endless "drilling" or always doing things exactly the same way is unnecessary and unproductive; instead we keep lessons fun and interesting with play objects, figures and patterns, and endless variety. We believe that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and that all "aids" or "cues" for physical activity first have to go through the horse's brain -- hence there is no real difference between a "trick" and a "movement" as they are both things that a horse can learn. We don't buy into the arrogant idea that the horse owes us performance and work; rather, we think we owe it to him to teach him what is expected of him. We believe that our role is to be a respected teacher rather than a slave-driver or taskmaster.
HORSES HAVE EMOTIONS and EMOTIONAL NEEDS: We believe that horses have the same emotions and moods as we humans do. In other words, they experience fear, anger, frustration, worry, playfulness, boredom, enthusiasm, happiness and joy. One big difference lies in the predominance in the horse of wariness and fear. We believe it is our duty to perceive anything that is bothering our horses and, within our powers, at all times to protect them from danger, relieve their fears, and educate them so that they may be less fearful less often. Our goal is to orient the horse's attention toward us and to show him that he can rely on us for relief. Once this is accomplished, we have our ideal, which is a horse who would rather be with us than anywhere else.
HORSES CONSTANTLY TRY TO COMMUNICATE: Horses cannot articulate words, but nonetheless they frequently try to communicate with us. Practical observation as well as many scientific studies have shown that horses have a large and highly nuanced vocabulary which consists primarily of postures and body-gestures. By contrast they are rather bad at understanding human speech, learning "voice commands" only with difficulty. We therefore believe that it is important for us to learn to "read" horse body-language, rather than demanding that the horse learn to respond to so-called "voice commands".
We believe that the handler's or rider's ability to "read" the horse is the true basis for safety as well as the basis for effective two-way communication between human and horse. Mastery of the horse's language empowers our ability to teach them, gives them confidence, and causes them to be not only cognizant of but interested in our priorities and objectives. Learning to "speak horse" is the essential means by which we cause our idea to become his idea.
( 4 ) HORSES DESIRE INNER EQUANIMITY ABOVE ALL OTHER THINGS: Every choice a horse makes is an attempt to achieve inner peace for himself. This can (and ought to) occur even right in the middle of the most difficult and demanding physical work. Once a horse learns that you control his ability to be at peace, and that every time he responds as you wish him to he will experience peace and relief from uncertainty and worry, he will do anything within his physical powers for you. 'Way back at the beginning of the 19th century French master horseman Francois Baucher taught riders the importance of setting up or preparing each transition or maneuver so that "the desired movement becomes not only easy but inevitable." Ray Hunt taught us to "prepare the position for the transition" and to "make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy" -- so that punishment is almost never necessary. The balance in our school is always toward reward: "Always reward the smallest change and the slightest try".
( 5 ) THE "GREAT TREE OF TRAINING" HAS ITS ROOTS IN ATTENTION. The horse must attend to the rider or handler, and we teach students to demand this of the horse at all times. Of course this also means that handlers must be aware and in control of THEMSELVES at all times! Once the horse has learned to focus his attention on the handler or to an object or target selected by the handler, he will automatically and immediately become calm and obedient: in short, calmness and obedience cannot be demanded because they are results of focus and attention. We use Dr. Deb's "Birdie" metaphor as a teaching tool that makes the direction and intensity of a horse's focus visible to the mind's eye of the handler. Control of the horse's Birdie is deep control which no type of bit can possibly equal.
( 6 ) WE ARE THE SCHOOL OF CONSCIOUS HORSEMANSHIP. There is no form of horsemanship which is "natural", and we have noticed that supposedly "natural" horsemanship almost never equates to better training or better relationship between horse and human. Constant repetition of the term "natural" and the sly equation "natural = better" have the effect of dulling horse owners to the plain fact that they are 100% responsible for all outcomes with their horses. Our effort is to create riders who are aware of what their horses are aware of, and who consciously choose the best (not the "most natural") management options and training protocols for their particular, individual horse.
At left: Oliver and I head down the road. Oliver's forward-facing ears show that he's intent on the job. But note also the rearward-focused eye: I have taught Oliver to continually check in with me. He does this because I also continually check in with him: in short, we are conscious of each other all the time. Over the course of training, my priorities become my horse's priorities and he feels good about this because he's confident that I am also aware of how important it is to him to feel safe. Only when your horse is "100% OK on the inside" will he be able to smoothly and accurately perform work. Oliver and Painty Horse who are pictured in this section, along with all of my students' horses who are trained in this philosophy, get to where they'd rather be with their human than anywhere else.