I was going to write more about our horses, but enough of us for the moment!
Where do you stand on the scale of horsemanship, if “natural” is at one end and competition and artistic riding, say, are at the other?
My nearest, French, horse-owning neighbours, both good friends, come from opposing ends of the spectrum.
Patrick rides a palomino quarter horse bareback, in leather chaps, with a cord halter and a cool demeanour. Asked why he prefers not to use a saddle, he says that, as a boy, he visited relatives who had horses grazing nearby and he longed to ride. They said of course he could ride the horses, but no-one explained how to saddle one up, and he didn’t like to ask, so he just jumped on bareback and carried on riding that way.
Many years and many horses later he has studied and assimilated the principles known here as “éthologie”, which match the natural horsemenship promoted by those who take the innate behaviour of horses in their natural habitat as a template to create a harmonious bond. I’ve seen it, tried it and it worked for me, but is join-up and the rest of the credo as useful to a competition horse and rider as it is to the leisure rider?
Flo has a blown-up photo of herself on a gleaming showjumper, clearing a scary height of bars, in a prominent place on the living room wall. She went straight from school to work in the best yards, living on the SMIC (minimum wage) to hang around big-name showjumpers and top-class horses. She teases me for reading “Cheval Pratique” which is fine “for my level”, but she reads “L’Eperon” and knows the name of every horse and rider who ever won a CSO (Concours du Saut d’Obstacles) at regional level and above. And their dams and sires.
She was hospitalised for months after a fall in the practice ring at a national championship and had to give up riding for many years, but her attitude is unchanged. Why do we want to go meandering around the countryside? You’ve got a new horse – let’s see how he does over the bars. She has a family now and they all do sport, seriously. She’s a positive force of nature and sometimes she raises her voice, sometimes she’ll use “rênes allemandes” and other “artificial” aids, but she also believes in kindness and common sense and horses love her and work well for her.
These two friends and their families circle warily around each other. It’s a very small commune/village, and I would love to have them all round for supper together, but then I’m just piggy-in-the-middle and can see both sides!
As I see it, our horses are as removed from their natural state as we are from cave-dwellers, yet civilisation is just a thin veneer over the millennia of evolution. When the way we live our twenty-first century lives and the environment in which we keep our horses seems increasingly artificial, the honest response is to get back to what we see in nature. And we will always need to study both basic horse and human psychology!
Yet without civilisation and artifice, could we stand in awe before the best of art and architecture, a patchwork of fields or a cityscape and marvel as we can before a flawless sunrise over the ocean or dusk on the desert? Can we discount the art of trainers from Xenophon to Olivera or the science of breeders who have given us horses of surpassing beauty, bravery and ability?
An untouched foal accepting the touch of a human hand has made its first contact with civilisation, for better or worse. If a horse meets with respect and kindness, he or she won’t care about the principles of the person who provides its care and training, even though it may show a preference or talent for one or other way of interacting with its humans!
I hope we’ll keep an open mind towards our fellow horsemen and women; we need to listen to them as much as we “listen” to our horses. What do you think?