Foundational Relationship Defined
To me, the definition of a good foundational relationship between horse and human is this: a horse that is calm, soft, straight and strong, working together with a person who is calm, soft straight and sure. I have chosen the words and their order carefully; they are the culmination of a lifetime of lessons learned the hard way and wisdom passed on from the horses and people who have mentored me in some way. A good foundation is the gateway through which we can go anywhere with our horse partners.
If a horse is not calm, if some part of the horse is tense, be it in his body or mind, the rest of the horse cannot be soft. If he is not soft all the way through he cannot be straight. If he is not straight he cannot be balanced and he cannot use his whole body equally. If he cannot use his whole body he cannot marshal his full strength nor can he preserve his soundness.
If a person is calm he or she can be fully present and aware in the moment, which is where the horse lives, and can connect completely with the horse. If a person does not learn softness, neither will the horse. If a person isn’t straight the horse must compensate and will be off-balance as well. If the person isn’t sure he or she cannot lead and the horse cannot follow where the rider can’t lead.
I began with calmness in the horse for this simple reason; none of the other cornerstones are fully possible without it. If his mind is not calm he cannot focus his whole self on the task at hand. Physically, if there is tension in any one part of his body—if there is a brace—this will limit that part’s motion and fluidity. Every other part of the body must then move around the area of tension in order to compensate and is thus distracted from properly doing the job it was meant to do. Mentally, if a horse isn’t calm he won’t be able to learn and process information efficiently. He is a flight animal; his survival depends on the ability to react instantly to threats. It is at the very core of his nature to escape and not stop escaping until he is either free of danger or caught. He is genetically programmed to flee first and figure out why later, so much so that he will learn and retain very little when he is afraid. He can think just fine when he is not scared; that is part of his nature too. He needs that ability in order to make longer term decisions about where to go, what to eat and whom to trust. Getting our horses into a thinking state of mind should be our primary objective when working with them. Unfortunately, the most common mistake we humans make is thinking we’ll come back and get the calmness after we’ve gotten the other stuff.
There is one other reason I put calmness in the horse first and it has to do with the human part of the relationship. Very few people are able to maintain their own calm in the face of a scared or nervous horse. A person who is not calm surrenders the ability to think and gives it up to reacting—and the ability to think things through is the most important thing the human brings to the relationship. Without it, all that is left is reacting to the horse’s reactions.
Softness is the voice of calmness; it is proof of trust. All whoas and clucks aside, we humans and horses speak with each other through our bodies. Our opinions are made clear by what we do and how we do it. A horse will know whether we seek to dominate or harmonize in the choices we offer him, whether we seek to educate or subjugate by the way we respond to his mistakes. He will know the value we place on him by the patience we show him and the improvements we are willing to make in ourselves. He can judge the true measure of our caring by the level of our presence with him moment by moment. We can judge it by the level of his resistance to anything we do with him.
This cuts both ways. Horses express their opinions about us in the way they respond to whatever it is we do. Their voice is the level of their resistance—their softness. Fears and distractions that do not resolve mean something. But the good news is that every muscle in his body which learns to relax also means something. We so often focus on the way our horse responds to bit or halter rope that we lose sight of the rest of the horse. Find a way to relax his ribs, lower his neck and loosen his back. Do that and the bit will take care of itself. See if you can cause him to move off quietly and his feet to step gently. See if you can be a deep breath for your horse, even if only for a moment, and you will both be on your way to softness. Then you will be conversing, not shouting, and you’ll be able to get to know each other a lot better.
Straightness in a horse, and maybe calling it evenness would be better, means more to me than spinal alignment, it means equilibrium. In other words whatever one part does, its opposite member responds in equal and appropriate measure. So it could mean left to right, top to bottom or front to back. A horse can even have straightness on a circle so long as the outside lengthens in proportion to how much the inside shortens. For me it also means equality of effort in quarters and legs.
It has taken me years to grasp the true importance of this concept, years and watching some of my best horse friends struggle and suffer with lameness and/or limitations that I either caused or could have lessened. There are two ways a horse can be straight (or not): a horse can be straight in the short-term, that is how well-balanced he is and how equally he moves at any given moment, and long-term, meaning how he habitually carries himself. Horses are prone to leaning to one side or the other; over time it shows up as a crooked way of going, uneven left to right musculature, growth patterns in hooves and even in tooth wear. In the short-term, being straight influences how well a horse can perform a given maneuver or task and in the long-term it influences health, happiness and soundness. Long-term misalignments can become so ingrained that they feel normal but don’t be fooled; they are causing damage.
It is much the same for us humans: we can be out of balance for a moment during some maneuver but we can also be out of alignment or crooked as a matter of course. We can give unequal signals, something akin to a horse not using all four quarters in equal proportion. As with our horses, these distortions can come to feel normal to us but not only are we damaging ourselves we are also forcing our horses out of alignment to compensate.
Building a good foundational relationship means that the horse will be allowed to learn and work at a pace he can handle. New challenges that he can succeed at will gradually be added to his working life. He will be permitted the time he needs to develop his skills and coordination so as not to damage him physically or emotionally as he learns. If granted this opportunity a horse will grow strong and stay strong and he can be a happy, healthy partner for years. It’s been one of my saddest revelations but I have come to believe that flawed riding has done far more damage to horses than flawed conformation ever could. I wish now I could go back and apologize to all the horses I ever rushed, pushed or expected too much from and somehow find a way to make up for every step I ever skipped.
Strength in horses begins with the core; a limb can’t be stronger than the core that anchors it. Walking your horse over poles or up a hill may not seem as glamorous as whipping through some rollbacks but if you’d like those rollbacks to someday be as good as they can possibly be, you’ll build balance and core strength first. Core strength, as with all strength in horses, should be built slowly and equally. If the weaker side or direction of the horse is not allowed time to catch up to its stronger counterpart whatever asymmetries and imbalances he has will only be exacerbated. Over time these cause break downs. And break downs are not limited to the physical realm either—far too many horses weaken and break down emotionally from stress. Horses are a little like credit cards; you can’t see your capital getting used up as you’re spending it but someday the bill will have to be paid. Allow your horse to pay off his stress debt before adding more. Emotional strength in horses is built one successfully-met challenge at a time.
Developing sureness in riders is much the same as developing strength in horses. Get the core skills first. Learn balance and timing, know where his feet are and where your horse’s mind is at all times, develop a level, patient attitude when things aren’t going as well as you’d like, acquire a working knowledge of equine anatomy and biomechanics, and most importantly, be willing to meet the horse in his world; these are prerequisites to really good horsemanship. Add some experience and you’ll have sureness—and you’ll be a true horseman.