This article is intended to give the reader a “Big Picture” view of the subject of horse training and the many horse training methods that exist today.
Two Disciplines – One Common Goal
Western Dressage has come into its own as a legitimate horse training method. Its goal is to infuse the western riding world and western riders with the principles of Classical Dressage, namely cadence, balance, relaxation and the horse’s acceptance of aides of the rider’s hands, seat and legs. But are these concepts new or simply repackaged under another of one of the many names we as humans develop to describe sound equine training and riding principles? The short answer is it doesn’t really matter so long as the end result elicits the best from both horse and rider.
The consolidation of these two styles of training was inevitable with the explosion of the information age and the full disclosure of what each discipline was practicing at the time the light of “information” begun to shine brightly on both worlds. In the dressage world, generally speaking, there was a lack of focus on the importance of understanding the psychology of the horse itself and a tendency to not focus as much on developing body control and softness in the horse on the ground first, but they excelled at developing softness and body control and collection under saddle. In western riding, generally speaking, many had begun to adopt the principles of natural horsemanship offering a better deal to the horse in initial training but under saddle there seem to be a disconnection in having full appreciation for developing body control and lateral softness and collection. So combining these two approaches to training into one seems both logical and beneficial for both horse and rider.
But with so many choices in training methods how does the beginner or novice know which way to go? Let’s define some major approaches described as horse training disciplines and see if we can’t find a common thread and make the choice of how to proceed training your horse less confusing.
Dressage – What Does The Term Mean?
Essentially dressage is defined as the method of training that develops obedience, respect, flexion and balance in the horse and the development of the rider’s skills to elicit these desired responses from the horse. So the common thread I see here is that the goal is to have a respectful, soft, responsive equine partner with which the rider can mount and perform the basic body control maneuvers under saddle without resistance from the horse. Sounds like what any equine enthusiast would desire from their relationship with their horse. If that’s the point of dressage then what is horsemanship?
Horsemanship – So What Is It?
The term “Horsemanship” is broad and it has been around for a very long time! The basic definition given horsemanship is that it is the art of riding a horse. It was recognized as early as (and likely earlier though not recorded) in 350 B.C. by the Greek philosopher Xenophon through his observation of Greek warhorses. Ironically it was the training principles used to develop warhorses in the ancient world that eventually morphed into what is now called “Classical Dressage”.
The irony is that warhorses had to be trained to the point that they could be ridden with one hand as the other hand was needed for battle implements, much like the way western horses are eventually advanced to be ridden with one hand today, but in dressage the horse is ridden with two hands at all times. Somewhere along the line the appreciation for the need to train a horse to that level was either lost or discarded. The biggest problem I see with that as a trainer myself is wondering what part of the original training was lost or discarded as a result? Common thread? Clearly the interest in getting the most out of the horse/ human relationship.
Natural Horsemanship – Is This the Answer?
Natural horsemanship’s primary contribution to the world of horse training has been opening our eyes to the importance of having a basic understanding of horse psychology and using that knowledge in how we communicate and train our horse. It’s not the entire picture but it is a critical first step in our approach to horses and without it our results are never as dynamic or our connection as deep with our horse as it could and should be. To not give this aspect of training its due upfront is essentially accepting that your horse will never reach its full potential, when applied to our relationship with our horse it enhances everything!
The only thing I’ll add is as a horse trainer and people trainer of many years, certain mechanical aspects of developing body control must be included in any training program, natural or otherwise, in order for the rider to be safe and to develop true body control in the horse. I’m not talking about mechanical devices here, but body mechanics.
The common thread again is the desire to have the best outcome with your horse. If all these ways of training share this common thread than how do I know which method of training to use? The answer isn’t necessarily which method to choose but rather which trainer or instructor to choose. Regardless, it is clear today that any training program must include basic tenants of sound horsemanship. So what are these principles that any competent trainer should employ?
The Must Haves of Any Training Program
The following list are things you should require of any trainer or training program and principles each horse enthusiast should strive to learn.
A basic understanding of the psychology of a horse.
A focus on developing complete body control on the ground first!
A focus on developing lateral flexion from the beginning (without it true collection is impossible).
A focus on developing complete body control under saddle.
Ultimately teaching collection and advancing the horse to one hand.
Understand just a couple more things. Probably one of the most important reasons to pursue developing true collection in your horse is for the horse’s sake. With the rib cage lifted and the top line round and the hocks underneath him the horse becomes free again as if without a rider. It is the most enjoyable way of riding for both you and your horse when doing anything beyond a walk. And lastly, having to ride your horse with two hands all the time limits your enjoyment whether you realize it or not at present. Advance your horse to ride one handed even if you show in two hands, your horse will thank you and you might be able to drink a bottle of water on the trail.
Joe is a lifetime horseman and student of the horse. He spent years as a trainer and as a horsemanship clinician. He is also a real estate professional and a former contractor specializing in residential construction.