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Learning From Your Horse

One of the things I never really anticipated when learning to ride was how much I was going to learn from horses. In most ways, I don't feel we train horses to accept being saddled and ridden as much as we learn the cues that horses all know and use to interact. In fact, much of the "natural horsemanship" techniques advocated by many today is to work with the horse rather than trying to force them to work our way — this feels very right to me. But there's more to learn than just being your horse's "alpha".

Those using horses for search and rescue are very attuned to their horses. They let their horse stop when it wants to just smell the air, study a site in the distance, or listen for movement. They do this because they're depending on their horse's natural abilities to ferret out potential danger and movement. In search and rescue, that movement can be a disabled and disoriented person.

When riding with a group, my horse will sometimes stop and freeze because he saw an animal. I'll look to assess the situation for myself, and if safe, as it usually is (because the animal is a deer or some such) I'll reassure my horse so we can continue riding and not hold up the group. But if riding alone, I prefer to let him study whatever he wants and do the same myself. Since starting to do this, I'm seeing much more in the forest and missing less.

There's a whole world of activity going on around us all the time and our horses have always been aware of it and can "clue us in" to it — I'm enjoying this! So when he stops and looks, I remain quiet and look in the same direction and listen. Almost always, he's discovered another animal, hikers, bikers, other horse riders, and occasionally, a newly left behind ribbon, pail — something. While the latter stuff isn't very interesting, the animals are and I feel as if my horse shares his "long range sensors" with me. It's also causing me to be much more aware of my surroundings and at other times when away from horses, such as at a mall or in the city — not a bad thing in this crazy world.

Another interesting thing to watch are your horse's ears when riding, especially when in a group. When riding with my friends, we'll switch up our positions from time-to-time so we're not always leading, following, or in the middle. This is also good for the horses because some always want to be up front (or in some other position) or they get upset. The only way to break them of that is to ride in all the positions frequently so they realize they need to do it all.

Back to the ears: When in front, horses will generally listen primarily to the front and a little to the sides. They know there are horses behind them so they don't worry about that. The horse in back focuses primarily on the back and a little to the sides. Those in the middle protect the sides. Change positions and your horse automatically "picks up" the proper responsibility. When riding alone, your horse's ears are more like individually controlled radar dishes and they move independently fore and aft as well as to the sides to monitor the entire environment — I find it fascinating they do this so well.

And if you ever doubt how alert all horses are to everything, including each other, ride at the back of a group sometime and when the group agrees to go from walk to canter, try to broadly watch the whole group in your field of vision as the transition occurs. The leader will change speeds and all the horses will transition within a fraction of a second the way of school of fish or flock of birds turn as a unit. There is a split-second lag, but it's incredibly fast. This also points out how one spooked horse can upset the herd instantly and why it's so important for us to keep our minds in the moment and on our riding for safety's sake.

There's more to learn from our trusty steeds and I'll cover it in future articles. But I hope this helps open others to enjoying more of the lessons our horse's can teach us.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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