How and Why Did Popular Natural Horsemanship Get So Far From Its Roots?

Ray Hunt changed the relationship between rider and horse from a battle for dominance to a dance of gentleness, communication and mutual trust. He taught riding as a path for both human and animal to realize their true nature.

Ray Hunt and his horse Hondo

Ray Hunt and his horse Hondo

The recent death of Ray Hunt has got me to thinking. With the assistance of reader Shoshin, I have been learning anew of the basic roots of Natural Horsemanship and finding that it was once quite different from the style practiced today by such popular trainers as Clinton Anderson. What seems to have filtered out through the horses and the years is the fundamental application of mindfulness.

An article in Shambala Sun, a Buddhist publication called Ray Hunt, The Cowboy Sage, by Gretel Ehrlich, follows Hunt through a clinic and explores the Buddhist roots of his work with horses. Hunt may not have agreed with that characterization, but there are some strong parallels between the way Hunt approached horse training and the way a Buddhist approaches life: “giving, discipline, generosity, patience, compassion, skillful means, wisdom, harmony, that’s what Ray has been teaching.”

At the heart of Ray’s teaching are lessons about giving, discipline, awareness, compassion, stillness, concentration, and intelligence, the Buddhist paramitas spoken in a western dialect. But how did a rough-hewn cowboy learn these things? Ray answers: “It didn’t come easy. I didn’t just scrape off the top and there it was. I dug and dug and tore my hair out. But I owe it to the horse to work this hard, because I used to do things the true grit way. Not out of meanness. Just ignorance. I guess I saw too many Charlie Russell paintings. I didn’t know there was another way.”

When asked how he made this happen, he answered, “Oh, I just work with the mind.”

Hunt often gathered trainees around at the end of a clinic to tell a story:

A guy said, ‘There’s no use going to those Ray Hunt clinics, all he does is work with the mind.’ Well what the hell else is there? I like to think it’s 80% mind. You might have to do quite a bit physically, but once the mind is in tune, it takes almost nothing at all.

Inherent in Hunt’s “working with the mind” is an awareness, a stillness of his human agenda that would ordinarily cause a trainer to rush to achievement, to push the horse to accept more and more intrusions from the human world. In Hunt’s case, he remained still. He didn’t force an agenda.

I don’t have a time limit on this. It might take a minute, it might take five years. Sometimes you have to keep offering different things. You don’t want to drag it out of them and kill their desire and grit; you just turn it around, you turn it into life,” he says as the young sorrel stops bracing against Ray and turns smoothly. “There he goes,” Ray says, making sure the students see the change.

I am reminded of a basic Tellington TTouch® tenet, don’t force your agenda. When working on the basic body exploration of a horse, or when working to relax the body and the mind, it doesn’t pay to have a specific goal in mind. Erasing what you’d like to accomplish from your mind and being open to what actually occurs leaves open a huge window for success. You just have to be mindful enough to see when it occurs. A lick, a chew, a subtle drop of the head. The lowering of the eyelid. A sigh. Slowing respiration, cocking a leg. All the signs a massage therapist or skillful trainer looks for when waiting for a release. These are the proof that relaxation and acceptance have occurred.

I’m wondering how this attitude and Hunt’s transformed into the thinly veiled dominance and force based on “equine body language” one sees on RFD TV today.

In a training last week at Cedar Creek Stables and RIDE WITH PRIDE, there was a horse who would not allow any work on his right side. He would barely allow a person to approach him from that side. He had a history of injury to a right front leg, and this was causing difficulty going to the right, making it difficult to work in the arena as a therapy horse. Many current NH trainers might say, “I’m going to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing very hard for you,” which is a politically correct way of saying, “I’m going to force you to move to the right using these handy-dandy natural horsemanship steps.”

In last week’s training, a participant unwittingly demonstrated this tenet. At first she expressed frustration at not being able to work on the horse’s right side. Sandy Rakowitz assured her that all things come in time, and left it at that. The lady stopped trying to get to his right side and continued with the next steps in the clinic. Toward the end of the day, she reached over the horse’s back and began to TTouch him from the left side. She slowly worked his right withers from a non-threatening place at his left side. She noticed two things.
1) He allowed it, even seeming to enjoy it, and
2) his muscles, which had been extremely tight and tense in the early part of the day, had relaxed with all the work that had been done on him during the course of the day.

This isn't a really great photo, but it shows the clinic participant reaching over the back of the horse, TTouching the withers on the right side. You can see that the area has undergone some stress in the past because there are areas where hair is missing and others where the hair has turned white. The musculature beneath was very tight.

This was a perfect illustration of the cumulative effect of Tellington TTouch and the fact that if you allow yourself to let go of an agenda (getting to that right side come hell or high water), you just might achieve it at some point. It also reveals how beneficial it is to try something different. Sticking to dogma rarely produces those serendipitous results.

I am again reminded of a story Linda once told me about a training in Europe. Someone brought her a horse who refused to be saddled without resorting to extreme measures. They had tried everything. What could Linda add to the mix that might allow them to saddle this horse without suffering grievous bodily harm? Linda took the saddle, walked to the off (right) side, and carefully placed it on the horse’s back, and attached the girth. No muss, no fuss. A simple demonstration of the benefits of doing things another way. It wasn’t some magical training dogma. Linda had no idea whether this was going to work. if it hadn’t, she would have had to come up with another idea. Her flexibility in dealing with the issue was the magic. Her observation of the horse’s issues with being worked on the left side was the magic. The mindful observation of the horse. Her willingness to open herself to the horse in front of her without a particular “fix” in mind.

“I don’t have a time limit on this. It might take a minute, it might take five years. Sometimes you have to keep offering different things. You don’t want to drag it out of them and kill their desire and grit; you just turn it around, you turn it into life,” he says as the young sorrel stops bracing against Ray and turns smoothly. “There he goes,” Ray says, making sure the students see the change.

I am puzzled by how the horsemanship world has moved away from this revolutionary method of horsemanship to a more results-driven approach that subtly encourages dominance. Is it expediency? is it a fundamental character of human nature? Are we just lazy and in a hurry? I am very interested in your take on how and why natural horsemanship has changed over the years and across the continents.

For the complete article, click here.

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43 Responses to “How and Why Did Popular Natural Horsemanship Get So Far From Its Roots?”

  1. Fascinating post!

    I think it has to do with narcissism mostly. The horse is not there as a partner or a friend but more as a vehicle for participation in a sport, and/or for attention and winning.

    Even in situations where this is masked slightly, and the welfare of the horse is said to be a priority, it breaks down to the bottom line that the horse is expected to do things a certain way, for no good reason except someone decided what that good way IS, and deviating from that is considered spoiling the horse, or allowing the horse to manipulate, or simply being a poor horseperson.

    The behavior of one’s horse is viewed as an extension of the rider/owner’s ability, and thus becomes very personal. All kinds of things then get played out – one’s own issues get entwined with what the horse “needs to do” and how to implement that.

    Again, it reminds me of parenting. You see 2-3 year old children in check-out lines at grocery stores wanting the candy that is conveniently placed right there where they have to stand and wait, and parents getting progressively embarrassed and more and more harsh and punishing.

    Or the other end of the spectrum where the parent sets no limits whatsoever and the child is allowed to run rampant through the store.

    But the children aren’t reflecting anything except where they are in their growth and development – developing a sense of self and of “I” and “me” and “mine.” The behavior they’re exhibiting mostly means they’re on track developmentally! But it becomes a way of judging the parenting, and parents want their children to behave and look good so THEY will look good.

    Someone needs to write the horse version of Alice Miller’s books! I wonder if that book Tug of War, which I have on my list but have not yet read, might be coming close to this…

    Funny this post is here today, b/c last night I got emails about the upcoming Pony Club activities and I think I probably stressed all night about the prospect of taking horses to a rally where there are all sorts of rules and practices that I no longer agree with – nothing horrific obviously, but for me, stalling a horse at an equine complex for 3 days is painful to think about.

  2. I’ve had a fantasy for a couple of years about starting an alternative group for young/old/all ages riders and their horses where the focus becomes horse-centered and the rewards have to do with honoring harmony in the relationship between individual horses and their riders, not speed or jumping height or best attire/presentation.

    A national program but community based, so that there wouldn’t be a focus on hauling horses hither and yon to shows and such, but where the participants could get attention and kudos for the work with their horses.

    As usual, my ideas far outreach my ability to carry them through! I would be hard pressed to give up my peaceful days to organize all the things I think about. :)

  3. Exactly! I hereby appoint you official first member. :)

  4. Does this mean I get to wear a tiara? Or put Gemits on my helmet? Cause I would SO do that.

  5. What is a Gemit??!

    LOL about the tiara – at a workshop I took a few years ago about using fairy tales in therapy, the presenter gifted us all with tiaras that have tiny battery packs on them and they light up and flash. Periodically if my family gives me a hard time about something I put it on and walk around the house emanating “queen-ness.”

    Not that it gets me anywhere, but I like doing it!

  6. haha! I’ve seen those!
    have to get one.
    my daughter and I have had a nice fake tiara for many years. it has even been worn on horseback.

    whenever one of us does something to celebrate, she gets to wear the tiara for the day. when she got into college, she wore it for dinner. when I got an A in a nursing school class, I wore it. It’s sweet and silly tradition.

  7. “Are we just lazy and in a hurry?”

    I think that’s it. Plus from what I can tell these new natural horsemanship folks are out for the big bucks- because in order to do it ‘their way’ you have to purchase all their junk. People want miracle cures and would rather spend money than time.

    Patience in all animal training is key. Patients and listening to the animals cues. Some people have this ability naturally, some people have to fake it until they sorta get it and some people will never even attempt to get it. Like the people that Billie mentioned.

    another great post- now I gotta go catch up on the rest!

  8. I don’t have much to add to this great post. I agree with Billie and Sarah. And I feel that money and egos are the culprits of the horse world whether it’s for natural horsemanship clinics, selling books, special tack etc… If there is a dollar to be made it seems there’s an awful lot of people ready to find a “new way” to make it. Sometimes I feel it is at the expense of the horses and their riders.

  9. I think Linda is pretty glamorous, actually! :)

    And I think if you reach 200 people in a deep way – because it was done personally and with a quality encounter – those 200 people will pass at least some of what they learned on to more people, so the effect ripples out further than you know.

    The thing is, if you try to reach more people more quickly, it all gets diluted and then the real meat of the philosophy is watered down and becomes a canned version of itself.

    I know you know this, but I had coffee with my massage therapist (who does humans and horses) this evening and I got jazzed up talking about this same topic with her. Thanks for a post and a day of comments that has really got me thinking and typing.

  10. “The thing is, if you try to reach more people more quickly, it all gets diluted and then the real meat of the philosophy is watered down and becomes a canned version of itself.”

    I think you have hit the nail on the head, there, definitively, with respect the the question I ask in this post. Thanks for answering it!

    I always enjoy talking with you.

  11. jme

    This is a fantastic idea!

    “I would like to see a competitive/showing world that, even if it can’t necessarily be cured of its evils, can at the very least be opened up to new ideas so that those who take a different approach can participate too. and our judges would be people whose opinions and insight we respect – people who can recognize a relaxed and happy horse ridden without force or resistance…”

    People are not allowed to participate if their alternative methods have physical manifestations. Then the traditional world fears for their safety, and in the best case, requires additional release forms to be signed. In the worst case, doesn’t allow participation. Then, as you say, we lose the benefit of insightful judging. Sad, really, but you can understand where they are coming from.

    I wish that it didn’t take such energy and resources. It should be easier than that. In an ideal world, differences would be embraced. It seems to me that the horse world is slower than almost any other to accept diversity. Old prejudices hold hard.

    Maybe through this post you will find others interested in starting the same thing. Post about it in your blog. See what happens. I will lend any help I can.

  12. jme

    Do post about it. I would be so happy to read your responses.

    As to your “tangent,” that’s the most movingly perfect statement of horsemanship I’ve read in a very long time. I’ve forwarded it to Linda as proof that there are mindful horse people out there. It’s so wonderful I want to put it on the front age here as a sticky post.

    *namaste*

  13. thanks! i’m glad my thinking makes sense to someone :-)

  14. Thank you so much for taking the time–& making the effort to read more about Ray Hunt, to delve further into the subjects of Ray Hunt, his horsemanship, so-called natural horsemanship (what’s “natural” about a human animal–a predatory animal species, sitting on top of a non-human animal–a prey animal species, hanging onto ropes running through said non-human animal’s mouth?), what has become of the Vaquero tradition as interpreted & passed down from the Dorrance Brothers through Ray Hunt & his principal students (Buck Brannaman & Frank Bell).

    I would suggest that even more fundamental to the question of what underlies this Vaquero tradition & its interpreters & interlocutors is the question of the moral status of non-human animals.

    Buddhism to a certain extent–though it does reserve a special sort of “hell” for non-human animal existence (the “Animal Realm”), transcends & encompasses the Dualisms of what Gore Vidal terms the “Sky God” religions (Judaism, Christianity, & Islam), thereby, at least partially, resolving the insuperable (in my opinion) problem of how the Sky God religions address the problem of suffering in/of non-human animals. In Christian theology, for example, there is an entire discipline/school devoted to addressing the problem of suffering–in human & non-human animals alike, called Theodicy. Here’s decent introduction, not problematically biased, on the subject: http://cla.calpoly.edu/bts/issue_02/02lynch.htm).

    If one recognizes the moral status of non-human animals as worthy of consideration & respect, then one must also address the fundamental question, given the exquisitely evolved body & mind (brain), bones/structure, & physiology (biomechanics) of the equus caballus, of whether human animals should even be riding or attempting to ride horses.

    Moving beyond that basic question takes us to/into another basic question/realm–given that we have already made the decision to ignore what is “best” for the horse or to put it in terms of preference utilitarianism, what is in the best interests of the horse by choosing to ride the horse, is how do we honor what is in the best interest of the horse when we are attempting to “teach” the horse to “listen,” submit to (obey), & carry us (in a certain way) on their backs.

    When Enlightened Horsemanship through Touch speaks of training in the Tellington way (e.g., “do not force your agenda”) she is indirectly referring back to these basic questions of what moral status one ascribes to the horse & whether the actions (i.e., training & activities, such as riding) taken as a consequence of the decisions one has made on what one will do with (or “use”) the horse are consistent with that moral ascription. Enlightened Horsemanship through Touch suggests that there are elements of non-dualistic Buddhist dogma/teaching on these questions that can be found in the “original” views & teaching of Ray Hunt & even in Linda Tellington’s training system (if the term “system” can be used).

    These all are weighty subjects deserving of much, much more serious investigation, thoughtfulness, & discussion. However, I raise only parts of a few of these subjects in recognition of Enlightened Horsemanship through Touch’s moving consideration of Ray Hunt’s “natural” horsemanship & what has become of it through its interpretation & application by an ever-growing number of self-proclaimed (“natural” or otherwise) horse trainers/clinicians.

    Given my newness to the world of horsemanship (a little over 5 years), I find myself constantly reminded & challenged by those who have grown up in what I term the “Opus Dei of the Horse World,” that is, the US Pony Club–among other similar organizations & associations, I am repeatedly told—both by “non-natural hose people (these are almost always people who have been riding for all of their lives but who know next to nothing about equid ethology, otherwise known as “natural horsemanship,” & “natural horsemanship practitioners), that I cannot & do not know anything of importance to them when it comes to understanding horse & what motivates them to capitulate (because that is what human animals seek when they engage in a certain kind of “training”) to the will & direction of human animals (in the competition ring or otherwise).

    I am sick of the Clinton Anderson & others like him using domination & fear & suffering to compel horse to capitulate to their wills & direction. If that is “natural horsemanship–or horsemanship, then I do not want it.

    They justify themselves & their “training” behavior/actions by their “results.” Such practices reduce the horse to the status of violated object who is subject to what Marcuse termed “democratic unfreedom.” Can the term choice even be used when it is constituted of such a false dichotomy?

    I just met one of these “trainers” in Maryland who differentiates himself from other natural horseman by extolling the virtue–& results, obtained through the use of brute force & terror. He justifies his actions by the results, namely, total obsequiousness, he obtains.

    Yes, the horse will do what these people subsequently ask.

    However, such ways of interacting with the horse can only be countenanced if one regards the horse–& non-human animals (& I am Vegan, by the way) in general, as mere instruments to be used & exploited on behalf of human animals. Such a view rejects the suffering of horses as a viable moral dilemma & cannot be said to honor the best interests of the horse.

    I look up to Alexander Nevzorov, Klaus Ferdinand & others–impossible as it may be to achieve their level of accomplishment, as embodying the kind of horsemanship that I can respect.

    Thank you Enlightened Horsemanship through Touch for addressing the passing of Ray Hunt & his Bodhisattva’s way of meeting the horse (on the horse’s terms).

    Regards,
    Shoshin

    • Shoshin, I enjoyed your thoughts here. Just wanted to add/clarify that there are lots of people out there saying they are this or that and speaking on behalf of somebody they actually do not represent. I have seen some real morons espousing “natural horsemanship,” and I have seen some incredible relationships with horses and people who espouse “natural horsemanship.” No single person can speak for an entire group. As a practitioner of “natural horsemanship” I have never used the term to describe the predator sitting on top of the prey, but the journey/relationship built in order for the prey to allow it. That is what I would term/describe as natural. How do I communicate my intent to the horse? What is he communicating to me?

      • Dachia,
        Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
        Can you answer the two questions you posed at the end of your comment? I am very interested.

        • Sorry for the delay in my response. The answer to those two questions changes with every situation. I try different things depending on his mood, my mood, and I’m sure he does the same thing. But each thing I try I ask myself, am I being clear? Could I be more clear? I want to communicate my intent not just force him into compliance. As my intent is communication, I draw from my observations of other horses. How would another horse make this point? How can I mimic another horse in my intent? I think I am starting to ramble, but basically that is my answer… that the way is different with each horse, situation, day… even minute.

  15. I talk allot about this with Comanche’s trainer, (she spent a year with Ray Hunt), and she attributes the wandering to “production” requirements. The need to produce new or flashy material for sale via TV/DVD’s…In other words, the horse is not thought of first.
    Comanche will be 5 next month. But, until I am sure I completely have his mind, I won’t be over exposing him. I am committed to that taking as long as it takes.
    By the way, my favorite audio book is Leslie Desmond’s, “Horsemanship and Horse Handling Through Feel”

  16. A turning point arrived for me with the distinction of the terms dominance, leadership and trust. Who wants to be dominated in the first place? So there is no chance that dominance can be a way with horses. Leadership comes a little closer, the question of course being who leads. Trust, however, does it. Yes, I want to be able to trust the horse. Even more so, I would like to be worthy of the horse’s trust. So, here we go…
    .-= Christine´s last blog ..Vertrauen/Trust =-.

  17. it is often easier and more appealing to latent human aggression to dominate a creature though force. But to rise above that to a greater refinement and intellectual reasoning not only recognises the thinking capacity of the horse, but reveals the human also, so that ultimately man’s treatment of the animal becomes a mirror through which he sees himself.
    Quoted from Elaine Walker on first Duke of Newcastle and the horse’s mind

  18. What a great post. I think I must have seen something about this before – perhaps in Eclectic Horseman magazine?

    I think one reason it is so difficult to find popular trainers or regular people doing “real” horsemanship (a la Ray Hunt etc.) is that it takes a huge amount of personal mental discipline and education to develop the powers of observation and feel and timing that someone like Ray used. Most people don’t have those skills and they are not easy to learn. Thus for them to try to use those techniques would result in frustration, not success.

    You

    • girasol
      If there’s an article out there in this vein, I want to find it. Maybe I’ll have to search the archives of Eclectic Horseman!
      Funny you should comment on this older post because I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “Made For Each Other” by Meg Daley Olmert that explains the “magic” Ray Hunt used to read horses and gentle them. The author posits that the ancient skill of muscle reading was available to neolithic and paleolithic man as he observed the great herds of animals and sly predators, but that as domestication and agriculture took place, protohumans and humans gradually lost the skill. This certainly is a skill few can master, and would be easily misused and abused unknowingly by the majority (myself included). This is a really interesting book.
      So I’ve been mulling around a post about this idea of muscle reading and its possible effects on horsemanship in the old style.

  19. Just wanted to add to this older post… While I agree that much has been lost in many “styles” of natural horsemanship since Hunt et al., I think some stuff has been enhanced. It is the nature of humans to delve and change and figure out. Obviously we are often going to screw up otherwise well-working machines, but sometimes we make it even better. And sometimes these ‘changes” happen over generations, so maybe we don’t quite see what progress we have made right now, but I wonder if Ray Hunts peers saw the big picture or thought he was screwing with a good machine.

    • I k now for a fact that his peers saw the big picture. That is why many of them expanded on what he did in their personal ways. Some well, some not so kindly. I would love to know what they thought in terms of his successes.

      Certainly now many publicly praise his contributions. Privately… who knows? But look at Frank Bell, for example. A better horseman is hard to find. You say yourself some stuff has been enhanced. Frank is a case in point of the changes made over generations. He has made it even better, but there are those flagship names whose methods have taken horsemanship BACK in the name of advancement, and it makes me sad.

      Much like Cesar Millan’s “New, natural” methods of dog training based on canine ethology, the “big picture” contains much more than the animals’ behavior toward one another as the basis for all the work. Horses (and dogs) know that we are not one of them. It is an insult to their intelligence to treat them as if we were one of the herd/pack. This may get dramatic, instant results, but as great cost, I believe.

  20. be at peace. be as one. breathe as one. love as one. allow the heart to beat as one. namaste. the horse knows his true heart best. it is up to us to know our true heart. together we can find the space in the shared heart-breath and experience true one-ness as a single breath and heart beat. no one wants coercion or force to be their expression or their experience. it takes mindfulness and loving kindness to change the nature of an industry. together we can do this.

  21. Very interesting comments… My not so humble goal with my horse is to express the Divine through our interaction. To develop a true consensual relationship based on both of us wanting and choosing to do “stuff” together. So my horsemanship becomes my spiritual practice and my spiritual practice supports my horsemanship… All is One. Love, good feeling energy… “making” my horse do stuff, through “natural” training methods… Been there, done that. Not satisfying. I want to be and feel and move as One. Yup, spiritually ambitious. How interesting!

  22. I know it’s been a while since you wrote this but I wanted to forward it to my list. My journey from an alternative way of working with horses started with LTJ as well (the 3 week session in Mexico in the 80s). I was thrilled to see a more enlightened style of horsemanship grow and then saddened as it seemed to turn into yet another way of controlling horses. In the end control is all about fear – and letting go of fear is a huge challenge.

    Mark Rashid is another horse centred trainer

    • enlightenedhorsemanship Reply 06. Apr, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      Hi Sharon, good to see you here. Linda hasn’t taught in Mexico for a while–maybe she should return!

      My journey into mindful horsemanship did not begin with Linda,nor has it ended with her. It began with anatural horsemanship trainer at my local boarding facility who used some amazingly kind and thoughtful methods along with some (in hindsight) pretty abusive techniques that make me look back in horror at what I did to my horses under her tutelage.

      Letting go of fear and it’s flip side aggression is humanity’s biggest obstacle I think.

      I have read Mark Rashid but never seen him in action. I almost always try to reserve comment on a trainer until I have seen him training live. I suggest you research Manolo Mendez who is truly a stunning horseman. There is a softness and quality of movement in his horses the likes of which you may never have seen (except in those trained from birth by LTJ) , along with affection and trust that are truly touching. Take alook and let me know what you think.

  23. billie
    you said it all so well, I have little to add. I hope folks interested in this will read what you say carefully.

    Ahhh-Pony Club. my exposure to that institution is limited to their books, from which I learned a lot in my early days, but which begs review now.
    As I look back, it seems that it’s all rider-centered, and that there’s much that could be changed for the benefit of the horse. what does it matter if you can do a perfect standing wrap in under a minute if your horse is anxious and unhappy, and, as you say, forced to be in a stall for three days with no turnout for a stressful event?

    we have so far to go. I”m glad there is the internet so we can talk about where it is we need to go.

  24. Kind of like an alternative pony club? I would definitely do that!!! Where do I sign up?

  25. Sarah! How nice to see you here. Your work will be featured on March 25 (tomorrow) so check back!

    You are right, of course, and so is billie. I listen when she talks, because she is wise.

  26. ghm,

    I understand where you’re coming from, and you are right about the fame and money, but I think there’s something more at work. People don’t have to fall for just the glitz and glam.

    Underneath what the trainers are showing off has to be sound horsemanship, and mostly it is. But somewhere along the line what folks like the Dorrances and Ray Hunt brought to the forefront was lost, and I don’t know whether it is because it is fundamentally incompatible with glitz and showmanship or because it is not expedient.

    I am really troubled by this. Often people will say to me, “Linda Tellington-who?” and I feel really sad, because what my mentor is teaching harks back to the Dorrances and Hunt, and then adds a whole new layer of patience and listening. But she’s not glitzy and glamorous, and she hasn’t sold out. She’d rather spend her time in trainings with 15 people than with 2000, because then she can really effect a change in the way they see their animals.

    But I wonder if you CAN effect a change on such a level. If you only reach 200 people live in the course of a year rather than the many thousands dazzled by a big-name trainer, are you winning the battle for mindful horsemanship?

    It’s a tough day, and I feel like I’m on the losing team.

  27. i’ve been toying with a similar idea, perhaps in a more conventional vein… we used to have a local unrated horse show series that was well-run, relaxed and so much fun, and i thought it would be great to do something like that for those of us with alternative methods. i thought of either organizing events or approaching unrated shows about allowing things like bitless bridles, treeless saddles, barefoot horses, etc.

    i’m not an advocate of any of these things especially, but i recognize their value and would like to see a competitive/showing world that, even if it can’t necessarily be cured of its evils, can at the very least be opened up to new ideas so that those who take a different approach can participate too. and our judges would be people whose opinions and insight we respect – people who can recognize a relaxed and happy horse ridden without force or resistance…

    but like you, i lack the energy and resources (and know-how) to get it done. but i like the idea, so maybe there would be others who would want to get involved? where to begin…

  28. “I don’t know whether it is because it is fundamentally incompatible with glitz and showmanship or because it is not expedient.”

    i think it is both. there is nothing sexy or glitzy about slow patient work that does not produce spectacular results in a single session. sometimes you work with a horse until you get that minute, almost imperceptible, release and then your session ends. how do you sell that? if the horse belongs to a client, how do you justify your fees when the client can’t see the results for herself? if there is no agenda, when completed agendas are how we measure progress? how do get new clients and keep them coming back for more? money and ego definitely figure prominently; horse training is now an industry like any other – a product to be bought and sold. it took me a while, but when i realized that, i knew i’d never be successful at it and i left the ‘industry.’

    i also think it is both human nature and culturally ingrained in us to need that instant gratification – we are often unable to exercise patience and plan for the future when we WANT here and now, so i think we gravitate towards those people and methods who promise to satisfy our immediate desires. i think (and a Buddhist might agree ;-) that developing that patience, awareness and sensitivity – not to mention extinguishing that desire and accepting whatever the universe gives today – requires an enormous amount of self-discipline, which most people have neglected to cultivate; largely because we live in a culture that promises us we will never have to.

    most people want absolutes, where the uncertainty of the world can be safely packaged and dealt with by distilling everything into a convenient formula: if you do X, you will get Y. they want tried and true results, not open ended experiments. only, the real world doesn’t work like that. sentient beings don’t work like that. but acknowledging that fact means accepting there will be failures as we learn to take the time to listen, and learn to react with compassion and empathy to each individual animal and circumstance – receptivity, creativity and nuance too often are neglected.

    the other undercurrent i sense is this issue of dominance. i am disturbed by all the talk of ‘being the alpha’ etc. i haven’t found that necessary in my work with horses. they are partners. equals, even – or as close to equal as possible; one may lead, but never by force. i’ve left force out of the equation, and that means physical and psychological coercion. to most of today’s NH gurus, that would make me a bad trainer. but i am still able to accomplish quite a bit with my horses without making them neurotic slaves…

    so what deep need is this language speaking to? i have this feeling that it appeals to or satisfies some need for people, especially people who are dis-empowered in other arenas in their lives, to feel in control of something; to dominate something; to be superior to something. in the same way we seek to control the elements and the environment, the horse is a cultural symbol of wildness, freedom and pride, so could subjugating it be an unconscious attempt at gaining control in a universe beyond our control? some even quote scripture, about how some deity supposedly granted humans dominion over animals. that not only offers a degree of psychological protection, but it must make some people feel good; i may not have my own life under control, but i can control the life of another…. does any of that aimless rambling make sense?

    some prefer to act rather than react. some do all the talking and none of the listening. i don’t want to be a dictator to my horses, i want to be a friend.

    sorry for the huge tangent! i’ll stop now :-\ i’ve gotten totally carried away here (and you’ve gotten a frightening insight into how my twisted mind works ;-) this is a great subject, and one i will probably continue to ponder for some time. so, thanks!

  29. thanks, maybe i will post about it. i think there must be some real interest out there, so who knows? maybe we could get something going!

  30. I’m sure it makes sense to a lot of readers. I just wish it made enough sense to those who wouldn’t ordinarily read it that they might follow your advice.

  31. I would like to thank you for your insights and remind you to be kind to yourself and let go of “the twisted mind” image you fell into after your brilliance.

    Remember we are One with Divine Source, perfect, and with special gifts. It is a gift to have you speak for all the horses who do not want or certainly do not need to be “dominated” and to all the people who do not feel good about dominating but have heard the word so often they believe it is the only way and dont know any other language.

    Love your horse and treat them as you would love to be treated.

    xoxoxo linda

  32. Shoshin,
    Few people consider the moral status of non-human animals as it relates to their moment-to-moment interactions. Translating their often lofty philosophies of equality into congruent action takes a lot of thought and attention. This kind of mindfulness is rare in horsepeople, I’m afraid to say.

    You pose the question of whether human animals should even be riding or attempting to ride horses, emphasizing that many “such practices reduce the horse to the status of violated object who is subject to what Marcuse termed “democratic unfreedom.” Can the term choice even be used when it is constituted of such a false dichotomy?… Such a view rejects the suffering of horses as a viable moral dilemma & cannot be said to honor the best interests of the horse.” My sister, after a young career excelling in jumping, decided on an emphatic NO and ceased all equestrian activity. I try to get a better balance for myself, though I refuse activities that fall blatantly under the umbrella of “use.” Teaching, spreading the word about non-dominant horse training and loving bodywork are a part of my “right living.” Still, I know that some horses love to have “jobs.” It’s a tough question.

    You ask, “how do we honor what is in the best interest of the horse when we are attempting to “teach” the horse to “listen,” submit to (obey), & carry us (in a certain way) on their backs?” I do not know the complete answer. I do know that open hearted mindfulness and careful exploration of each interaction is necessary.

    I am merely a lazy vegetarian. My goal is veganism. I realize this would be more consistent with my reality.

    Thank you so much for your response. As always, you have provided me with material for thoughtful consideration and possibly further posts.

    I look forward to reading more challenging comments in the future.

  33. Karen
    I’m familiar with the constraints of production schedules and how they impact a “program.” I admire those trainers who won’t budge but force the production plan to mold around their programs and the natural progress of a horse. It doesn’t make for good TV, and unless you overtly make a big deal of it, it doesn’t play well on video.
    Funny you should mention Leslie Desmond. I was just talking about her with a reader via email.
    I will have to do some research and maybe post about her. Thanks.

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