It seems to me that the key to successful work with horses is an acute sense of when and how to allow natural self-expression and when and how to offer restraint or pressure. Every horse needs both kinds of treatment and every rider and handler can get better at playing the game. The feeling of getting it right goes beyond satisfaction. It becomes the kind of intimacy and trust that feeds the human spirit, the connectedness that our species strives for in religion, love, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Every horse/human relationship is different, and every moment is a question with a different answer, so the only honest way to discuss this is with examples. My stallion Willy has raging male hormones that make his social interactions quite intense, whether with other horses or humans. Nature made him a leader with a strong sense of pride. When he arrived from the race track he was put in a stall from which he could look across a field and see a group of free roaming horses. He, however, was on stall rest recovering from an injury. My job was to hand walk him.
Some horses on stall rest become depressed and docile. Willy saw the exit from his stall as an opportunity to follow his instincts, to express himself, and to show off his grandeur. We were OK with the chain shank over his nose as we walked down the aisle, but the 40 feet outside from the barn aisle to the door of the indoor arena were too much of a temptation for him. He would somehow get enough distance between him and me that he was able to run around me, stop, snort, dart right past me, and generally take control of the situation and get the attention of every other horse on the farm. I had to call fearless Hugh, who had ridden Willy bareback from the neighboring farm to show me how to handle this creature on a lead shank.
Hugh was not brutal, just firm. Hugh's trick was to stay close to Willy. Rather than allow the line to slip through his hand when Willy made his move, Hugh stayed right at his shoulder and went with him. Hugh was not intimidated by the flying hooves and the 1300 pounds of solid muscle. He just firmly hung onto his only means of restraint, the chain wrapped around the nose. Within seconds the dynamic had changed. The horse and the human were connected and the horse accepted that fact. No anger from the horse. No anger from Hugh. Just persistent attachment, like the cowboy at the center of the roundpen, or the rider in the saddle, or the solid friend who stands by in times of emotional turmoil.
I learned my lesson quickly: stay with him and don't loosen up. I also learned that punishment for that behavior was senseless. My restraint with the chain had to be only as severe as his efforts to escape. Then there was no resentment or anger from the horse. As soon as he softened I could do the same, and it was that softening of the chain and my willingness to travel alongside him comfortably that began a trusting and respectful relationship.
So that was mostly a restraint story. What about self expression?
Like most Thoroughbreds, Willy loves to go forward. He expresses himself through movement. When I'm on his back I can allow that expression and I can restrain it. I want to allow as much as possible, but we have to shape the form of that expression. It has to be in a round frame much of the time, or in a balance appropriate for jumping. Somehow I have to convince him that he wants to do it the way I want him to do it, because he has stallion pride and he'll get angry and sulk if I force him too much. My restraint has to be firm and never abusive. When I open doors for him to express himself I have to know which ones they are and for how long they can stay open. As his training progresses he responds more quickly to my aids and our conversations become more full. I ask, he responds. He offers, I accept or decline his request.
There are two activities in which Willy is allowed to express himself the most, and it's in part because of these that our relationship is strong. One is breeding. My restraint is there, through a chain in his mouth, but I allow him to rear, to prance around, and do almost everything that he'd do in nature, including mount a mare and answer the call of his most powerful instinct.
Cross-country is similar. I remember thinking at the end of our first preliminary run at Waredaca last year that this horse loves cross-country almost as much as breeding. At 520 plus meters per minute he feels joyful. He searches for jumps, pulls me to them, and launches himself into the air. He's one of those horses who unfolds his front legs quickly and a little early, so you get the sense that you're flying. Sure, there's restraint from me. In fact there's more than there needs to be because I'm not as brave as him, but he's having so much fun expressing himself that he doesn't seem to mind. It's on the cross-country that he's the teacher and I'm the student. That, I think, is what makes eventing such a thrill. The horse is acting on instinct. It's the self-expression almost 100%. Racing and cutting cattle are two other sports that offer the same opportunity for the horse's instincts to take over. I'll never be a jockey, but I'd sure love to ride a good cutting horse.
I think that when a human accompanies a horse through those moments of expression that the level of intimacy soars. The horse trusts that the human will allow it to be a horse. And the human understands and comes to respect the horse for what it is, not just for what we make it.
What about horses who aren't clear about how they want to express themselves? The ones who don't want to be handled by people, or who don't want to go forward when ridden? I say that they do want to be handled and they do want to go forward. They just don't know it yet. Just as we have to learn to express ourselves in new media and new circumstances, they do as well.
A common problem under saddle is reluctance to go forward. The rider kicks. The horse holds it's breath. The whip comes down. The horse kicks back at it. Self expression is standing still with ears pinned back? Well, yes the horse is expressing something, and yes we have to listen, but if encouragement to go forward becomes punishment or abuse it never works. I don't believe that you can make a horse go forward. Horses' instincts drive them forward. We allow them to go forward. When I've had these horses, yes, I encourage them sometimes with a kick, sometimes with a spur, sometimes with a whip, and sometimes with a push on the neck. But I find the place and time that they want to go forward, and then mix the encouragement with their desire. Once they respond appropriately I am careful to make the movement as comfortable as I can for them. No clutching with the knees, soft seat, no incessant driving. They learn. They learn that forward is OK, that there's nothing to fear from it, that it feels good and natural. Very quickly it becomes a form of joyful self expression that can even stand a little restraint.
Training a horse is like teaching art or music. We can't make a horse or a human express its inner self in the chosen activity. We have to allow it. Sometimes our guidance is in the form of restraint or pressure. Always our coaching is respectful, and our presence is constant. And then, just at the right moment, we must back off a little and witness the beauty of what we have helped to create.