Humans appear to have an unquenchable thirst for turning training into a sport. We turn the training that goes into preparing a horse for war into 3-day eventing, jousting, mounted archery, mounted shooting, dressage, tent pegging etc. We turn training horses to work stock into campdrafting, reining, western pleasure, rope ranching, garrocha, team penning etc. We even turn trail riding into endurance events, navigation rides, mountain trails etc. And there are many other activities that we turn into a specialized discipline or competition (eg colt starting, skijoring) for the purpose of having fun.
This need to specialize and divide into discreet horse sports is not a bad thing in itself. People own horses for their individual reasons and if a particular sport interests them then I see nothing wrong with that.
When I was a teenager and eager to become the greatest showjumping rider the world has ever seen, I was told that if I wanted my young horse to be a showjumper I would need to train him with a showjumping coach. I have heard similar advice given to people about their young dressage horse or sport horse or carriage horse etc. Many people have asked me for referrals to different trainers who are expert in their particular discipline in order to get their horse started out on the right path. I’m sure you have all heard similar stories yourself or perhaps you hold the same views.
I never much thought too hard about the idea that we should divide up different training into specialized disciplines until a few years ago when a friend asked if she should take her young horse to a well-respected dressage trainer for dressage training. I knew the dressage guru she was talking about well and I also knew the horsemanship trainer she was presently studying with very well. My answer was a simple categorical NO, and here is why.
Both the dressage trainer and the horsemanship trainer are excellent at what they do. But my friend did not appreciate that her pursuit of training her horse to perform at a high level was setting her sights on the wrong goal. In her excitement to teach her horse a lot of cool advanced movements, she missed the point of getting her horse ready for the cool advanced movements.
The dressage trainer is talented at teaching all the little nuances that go into making the cool movements high quality. He understands the intricacies that turned a passable half pass into an amazing half pass. But the horsemanship trainer was brilliant at getting a horse ready for the brilliance of the dressage trainer. The horsemanship guy was going to get my friend’s horse relaxed and soft; mentally and emotionally ready and physically correct for the requirements that the dressage guy was going to demand. I say this with absolute confidence because I know for a fact that the dressage guy is not even close to being as talented at working with the inside of horses as the horsemanship guy. If the dressage guy knew as much as the horsemanship guy about getting a horse ready, I would not hesitate to recommend him to my friend. But that is not the case. Yet, I ponder what it would be like if we could combine the talents of both trainers and if it would produce the best horse person possible.
I have used my friend’s ambition to learn dressage from a dressage trainer as just one example of the issue. But there are a lot of people in the same predicament. I have people come to clinics that I help with their reining spins, barrel racers wanting help with their turns, there have been jumping riders wanting their horse to be calm in front of a jump, harness dilemmas, racehorses with barrier issues, endurance horses that can’t offer a relaxed walk, dressage horses with flying change difficulties. I am not a highly trained specialist in these disciplines, but I do know how to affect the inside of a horse and I do know how to prepare a horse for the thing we might ask of it. I know how to soften a horse to produce a good half pass. I know how to connect to the hindquarters to ready a horse for a brilliant flying change. I do know how to balance a horse for the best spin or turn around a barrel it can do. The trainers that specialize in these sports know much more than me about the detail required to reach the top level in these disciplines, but they don’t always know how to prepare the inside of a horse to be ready for that level of performance.
I am not saying there are not specialty trainers out there that can’t do what I do. But I am saying there are not enough of them. I’ve had professional dressage trainers send me horses to train to trailer load, fix head tossing and chomping on the bit problems, address tying up difficulties and treat a serious bolting issue. I’ve had reiners come to clinics for help with straightness and western pleasure horses show up for help overcoming the “peanut-roll” head carriage. I could write a very long list of other examples, but you get my point.
I have never thought of good horsemanship as a discipline in itself. In my mind, it has always been a foundational element of everything we do with a horse. But increasingly I see that it is becoming a specialized pursuit separate from other pursuits. I find this more than a little sad.
One contributing factor for this might be that good horsemanship is hard – really hard. We are very skilled at making a horse do stuff. But it is bloody hard to help a horse feel stuff, and that’s what good horsemanship is about. I believe the reason why most people who pursue good horsemanship don’t compete is twofold (i) good horsemanship is so consuming and challenging in itself that a person loses interest in competing, and (ii) competition is about the human’s success and ego, which is the antithesis of what good horsemanship teaches a rider.
In my work as a professional clinician I get to see a lot of people with a passion for various horse pursuits whose mind is focused on the end goal and not the journey. I see it as my job as a teacher to turn that around for them.
Photo: If you want to learn how to produce a dressage horse or campdrafter or polo horse or whatever sport you wish to pursue, then read True Unity and UNDERSTAND what Tom Dorrance had to teach. His wisdom held the knowledge that makes it possible for any horse to be the best he can be.