Updated: Dec 18, 2022
It is fascinating to look back and ponder the path we all travel with our horses. Over the years I have been lucky enough to learn from some amazingly talented people and they have all helped me in their own way. Some have helped me more than others, but all without exception have offered valuable lessons to me.
My path, although unique to me, is far from unusual and has been similar to many others I have compared notes with. It goes something like this:
Conscious Incompetence > Pressure and Release > Positive Reinforcement > Feel and Release
I started off with horses, blissfully unaware of what I didn't know and soon got into all kinds of trouble . As the bliss ran out, I looked for a path that could support me in developing much needed skills and awareness and found Parelli Natural Horsemanship. It did help, hugely, and for many years I thought this was the answer to all of my issues and aspirations with horses. However, as I progressed, I discovered that there were aspects of the system that began to suit me less and less so again, I looked around for something that felt kinder and less pressurised for the horse.
Positive reinforcement definitely filled some of the gaps and presented a different way of interacting with horses that gave them increased choice and more of a tangible indication of success through timely rewards. Positive reinforcement was also a great way for me to step off completely what I had been doing. Carrying on in the same groove would just bring me more of the same and I knew pressure and release was not for me. Things improved. Axel became less anxious and more confident and Temple discovered enthusiasm and found out that he could engage with me without constantly pulling faces. Many people would be really happy with that.
And yet... there was still a sticky bit in all three horses that I couldn't quite reach. There was a part of them, no matter how tiny, that felt held back from me. Sometimes it was barely noticeable, and other times it would surprise me and come to the fore when I wasn't expecting any issues. My last training trip to Cheshire with Temple being a case in point. He had travelled to many lessons with me with no problem and coped well with new environments. This time he came unglued and I really couldn't seem to reach him on any level. He was just trying to communicate something to me and it took me a while to listen and figure it out. I have invested time with people who have been very focused on the calmness, body awareness and authenticity I express and this has opened doors in me and changed my world view entirely. I would not be where I am today without these brilliant people.
Yet here it was...this sticky little tiny closed spot that I sometimes walked around and inspected, sometimes ignored, sometimes glossed over and fudged, but never forgot existed, and I wondered. What do I need to change in myself to blow away this sticky spot in my horses?
One thing that I was absolutely sure of was that the answer would find me if I stayed open and available. Sure enough, meandering around on the internet recently, a clinic in Devon with Karen Musson popped up. There wasn't long until the clinic and although I had never heard of Karen before, when I read the articles on her website, I knew that I had to go to the clinic. When you know, you know!
Karen was a long standing student of Leslie Desmond who co-wrote 'True Horsemanship Through Feel' with Bill Dorrance. I bought the book a couple of years after its release while on holiday in California many years ago and read it from cover to cover. Having dusted it off after Karen's clinic it is fair to say that I missed a good 80% of the true intent of this book. It just didn't register somehow and I thought that Parelli and pressure and release was the path that Bill Dorrance was describing. Was I wrong! It is really easy to think things are the same if they look similar. You have to dig a little deeper and maybe have some more experience under your belt before you can more fully grasp the essential differences.
Karen Musson has taken the principles in 'True Horsemanship Through Feel' and expresses them in her own way. She focuses on the release in the root of the horses neck and our ability to connect 100% fully with our horses in the space between curiosity and instinct. That place where our horses (and ourselves) are the most fully alive. The now! Karen encourages us not to connect with the conditioning that is in our horses, but to connect to the REAL horse within our horses. I really love this and see it as a truth that runs through the teachings of many of the great people I have trained with. To give a concrete example of this, if you have trained a horse through positive reinforcement to stop when you say whoa and you use this in a run-away situation, you may well be successful in stopping your horse, which is a great outcome. However, you will have connected to your 'conditioned' horse rather than your real horse. It is like you create a safety net to catch you when you are not operating fully through feel with your horse. It is not that this is 'bad'. It is just that there is a disconnect. It has all the potential to allow us to be asleep at the wheel in some way if we are not fully together with our horses through feel.
I don't know whether I would have got the full import of this crucial distinction a year ago. Today, the obviousness of it feels very compelling. I also feel very aware of the fact that truly interacting through feel presents a challenge to the human. To connect fully with your horse in all of their aliveness, we must be as 'alive' ourselves. Now I can feel that this is where true lightness comes from with horses. It is nothing to do with a pattern, a dogmatic thought, belonging to one camp or the other or even about whether your horse is free to choose and motivated or not (though it certainly helps!). It is so much more fundamental and immediate then this. It is about being with your horses energy and aliveness no matter what is presented and being able to blend with them in order to engage and to have them feel that we are fully with them. Bill Dorrance wrote about the infinite particles of feel and I can now see why. It's as unique as every horse/human combination!
So what have I learnt after playing with some of Karen's principles for the past few days? I have learnt that this is undeniably the direct route into the 'sticky spot'. The difference in all three horses is small but radical. I have learnt also that most of my residual issues come from a lack of understanding on my horses side about very simple tasks. If there is even the slightest lack of clarity, this will show up in the feel that is presented to you by your horse. Somewhere along the line I had managed to lose sight of the fact that horses so want to get along with us. They want this so deeply. If they are clear about what we are asking, really 100% clear, brace dissolves like snow in the sun. To give an example, can you ask for your horse to flex at the poll, softly and confidently with your hand on the bridge of their nose to the left and the right. Pay attention to any tiny (or large) resistance in your hands. Do they push slightly into one side of your fingers, no matter how slight? Can you progress this on to tipping their nose over the leading hoof and asking for the horizontal legs to back up just one step only with the root of the neck released, the shoulders free and the legs fully articulating? What does this simple exercise tell you about your feel? What does it tell you about your horses feel? Does it feel like there is a 'brick wall' blocking you anywhere along their body and does it give you some clues about how you might improve your communication together? This isn't about adding pressure and going up the phases. There are no phases. There is just feeling for each other and releasing.
The other thing I have found out is that all of a sudden we are developing some razor sharp precision with the horses feet. This has never been a strong point of ours and it feels like a huge step forward. I love the feeling of running energy through the horses body through my hand right through to their hind legs and down through their hooves into the ground. Playing with these exercises on the ground and in the saddle has a huge impact on the horse too. I have been amazed at how small and precise movements with no pressure, just a huge amount of sensitivity and feel creates a massive release in the horse. A great example of the healing power of enlightened horsemanship.
I hope what I am trying to explain connects in some way. It is hard to convey a flavour of two packed days of learning in a few words. Two days barely scratched the surface at that! I am looking forward to learning more from Karen and know that for me, feel and release is the path I need to be on for the next stage of my journey. I still use treats but now I feel far surer that everything I do has the potential to be a positive reinforcement!
For more information about Karen, please go to www.theartofriding.com