In this excerpt from Ride Smarter, a book published by Western Horseman, Craig Cameron explains the importance of creating what he calls a brave horse.
By nature, a horse is not brave. As a prey animal, his mentality is that of one being hunted, killed and eaten. The horse has been prey for millions of years. Even man’s first dealing with the horse was not to ride him, but to hunt and kill him.
Understandably, nature has made the horse cautious and given him a strong sense of self-preservation. He is not designed to face his fears. In a time of trouble, the strongest instinct of the horse is to run away. He likes wide-open spaces, where he has the ability and room to flee if necessary. He tends to be on guard all the time. He is one of the few animals that can sleep standing up, so he’s always ready to rely on his gift of speed if needed.
As horsemen, I don’t think we can ever completely take away that strong instinct for survival. It’s been there too long and is too heavily ingrained in horses. What we need to do is help our horses figure out that they don’t need to use or rely on their instincts of survival when dealing with us. We can teach them to be brave.
WHERE BRAVERY STARTS
Each day, by our actions or interactions with our horses, we should be teaching them that they don’t have to rely on their survival instincts. Our horses need to learn that, no matter what happens, we don’t ever do anything bad to them. We might work them, we might ride them, we are going to teach them, but we never hurt them. That is the trust we are constantly working to build with our horses.
And that is where bravery starts, with communication and co-existence between man and horse. A lot of what anyone does with a horse is not natural for the horse, even though it’s called natural horsemanship. I don’t believe that there is anything natural about a man being on a horse’s back. So the horse has to find the trust, build the belief in man, and develop the bravery.
I don’t know how anybody could train a horse without understanding how strong this basic aspect of his nature is. Instead, I have to use that knowledge of the horse’s survival instinct to build his trust and turn him into a brave horse.
Ideally, I like to be a part of a horse’s life from the beginning. I want him to learn, even when he is a foal, that he doesn’t have to be afraid of me. Even though he has the instinct, I don’t want him to ever feel that primal predatory fear of me. I want to fit into his herd hierarchy in a way so that he learns I am the leader and he is the follower. The horse looks for that. He wants leadership, because if you can’t be a leader, you force him to be a leader. Through your actions and the way you present yourself to the horse from the beginning, he finds that leadership in you and a relationship without fear, and he becomes brave.
By nature, horses don’t like loud noises, unfamiliar objects or fast movements, yet our world is full of those distractions. As part of their training in becoming brave horses, we need to present those things to them slowly and in ways they can understand. Therefore, understanding the nature of our horses before we start training them is so very important. The better we understand the horse’s true nature, the easier it is for us to create brave horses.
SIGNS OF BRAVERY
A brave horse is conﬁdent, relaxed and at ease with whatever you ask him to do. He is relaxed mentally, and that is what allows him to relax physically. Both physical and mental relaxation are so important. The mind controls the body. It’s the legs and feet that the horse uses to ﬂee, buck, kick or paw. But it’s the same legs and feet that make it possible for him to stop, back, turn, spin, load into the trailer or cross a creek. It’s your job to get in tune with your horse physically and mentally to build his bravery.
A brave horse is comfortable in his surroundings and in his skin. He’s willing, his head is in a natural position, his ears are relaxed, his eyes are blinking, and he is licking his lips. At the same time, he is alert, and that is different than being scared. An alert horse pays attention to his surroundings and what is going on around him all the time. But he pays attention in a smart way, not in a scared way. He’s interested and responsive. Once he is comfortable, you can direct his energy in a positive way. That’s what you want. Then, you have captured the mind and the body, and then you also can begin to capture the spirit of that horse. That is horsemanship.
A brave horse is no accident. It takes dedication and work to create a courageous horse. A brave horse is not lethargic or dead-headed. He is energetic, but in a controlled way. He is responsive because of the way you have taught and trained him.
When you see a horse that’s unsure or nervous, he might not be bucking on the outside, but he is bucking on the inside! He seems hard and tense all over. His head is up; his ears are pricked and not moving; his eyes are not blinking. He is ready to ﬂee, fight, buck, kick, paw, freeze up, or do whatever he thinks it takes to survive. That horse is anything but brave. That horse is working through instinct. He is ready to leave the scene. And that kind of horse is dangerous to everyone around him.
Your most important job each day is to take the fear out of the horse and work on creating a brave horse. You want to build that sureness in him so he doesn’t have to be afraid or tense. Then he isn’t concentrating on fear; he’s concentrating on the job you give him. He has a reason, a meaning and a purpose for the things you are asking him to do. That’s a confident horse, and that’s where bravery comes from.
Brave vs. Pushy
A brave horse isn’t an overbearing horse. There is a big difference. Bravery comes through teaching. Pushiness comes from poor training and a lack of leadership. A horse that is leading you, walking in front of you, constantly rubbing on you, and acting almost as if you’re not there is a sign of a person that has allowed the horse to learn the wrong things. There is a clear lack of understanding and respect. If the horse is allowed to live that way, that’s what he’s going to learn. He is a product of his environment, his herd, and leadership or the lack of leadership.
By the same token, a horse that is pushing ahead, charging or pulling on your hands when you ride is anything but the disciplined, brave horse that you are trying to create and develop. Don’t mistake an aggressive horse with a brave horse. Horses that show these pushy traits are sometimes actually the exact opposite of brave.
In my opinion, that type of horse often is unsure, nervous or apprehensive. The longer that he does these undesirable things, the more those actions become a habit. To correct these bad habits that horse needs to be taken back to the beginning, to start creating the foundation that makes a brave horse. Developing a truly brave horse takes desire, determination and dedication, and a training program that brings out the desirable traits of a fearless horse.