At some point during a conversation about horses, a mother asked me whether, in my opinion, it was a good idea to have her horse loving daughter take riding lessons. “Yes,” I said, though truthfully I was rather unsure.
I’d be the last person on Earth to deny all the benefits of horse riding, but it’s the way people interact with horses in a riding school setting that leaves me feeling conflicted. As biologist Francesco de Giorgio states in his 2015 book, co-authored with his wife José, Equus Lost?:
For many children (and adults), the riding school is a strange reality to learn more about horses.
While I don’t agree with everything in this book, based on my own experience I believe de Giorgio hits the nail on the head, in that riding schools revolve around performance by means of pressure, leading to emotional conflicts in pupils and frustration when the horse does not perform as expected. For me, this couldn’t be more true than in how the basic task of leading a horse became reason for tension.
When I was a kid living in Rome, I used to nonchalantly lead ponies used for pony rides, doing as I pleased by taking them for a little walk or a bite of grass; fast forward to my twenties, and I couldn’t get a mare whom I would frequently ride for lessons to come along with me by more than a few steps.
The alternatives I was shown to pulling was to get her to “move her feet” as an “alpha mare” would, either by insistently waving the leadrope, or using it to give her a thwack on the belly. Granted, neither is as grave as giving the animal an outright beating; but whenever I did as I was told, it was immediately followed by cognitive dissonance. Those were options I just couldn’t stomach.
It is believed that horses understand authority, and that their social life is structured according to a hierarchy maintained through aggression. In 2018, I travelled to Piornal in Spain to study feral Pottoka ponies with ethologist Lucy Rees, and soon realized why such beliefs are widespread — the vast majority of those who deal with horses have only ever looked at domestic ones; stressed by living conditions inappropriate to their species-specific needs, such horses show higher rates of aggression than feral ones. When refusing to comply in causing the horse any discomfort, it’s in fact not unusual to be asked something along the lines of, “Don’t you see what they do to each other?”
When I returned to Piornal last summer as a volunteer, I didn’t expect that leading a horse would be something I’d get to practice on, but that’s what I found myself doing — walking out with two of Lucy’s horses, the mother-daughter pair Lula and Iona. It was novel to me, as leading horses had mostly been about getting them in and out of their paddock.
. . .
I wished the earth would swallow me up when I was tasked with leading Lula for the first time and didn’t get more than a few metres. Actually, it was probably less. Before she came to Lucy, Lula’s life wasn’t all that smooth — she takes to pressure on her head poorly, for she was repeatedly pulled around by a drunkard.
Lucy gave me a demonstration of what it feels like to be pulled. While I was holding the headcollar — taking the place of the horse — she held the leadrope, then asked me to walk on, with her standing in place. I was surprised when we repeated the process but with her pulling — I even gasped in shock at the difference — and that was me feeling the pressure merely on my hand. I don’t dare to imagine what it is like for a horse, an animal with a complete dislike for restraint, when that kind of painful pressure is applied to their head. It’s true that pulling is routine in our handling of horses — some even assert that horses only learn by means of negative reinforcement. But I dare you to have someone pull at you from the opposite end of a leadrope and then have the heart to do that to a horse ever again.
What Lucy suggested for me to do instead of pulling was this: move my feet first — even spot walking will do — literally inviting the horse to come along (i.e. an invitation for the horse to synchronize with you). Should any tautness of the leadrope be applied, it should not escalate beyond a light, quick tug — as she put it, the tug a well-mannered child would give at his mother’s shirt for her attention.
One of the things that stuck most to my mind after attending Lucy’s course in 2018, is that the rigidity we see in horses is not resistance from stubbornness on their part, but rigidity caused by fear, and that the last thing to do is to actively apply pressure. And here I had a lesson in applying theory to practice — pulling is the most impulsive thing to do, and when one has been resorting to it for years, it’s going to take a good deal of practice to act counter-intuitively.
. . .
The real test came when we were moving Lula and Iona to a new grazing field, with the first major obstacle being a kennel full of barking dogs.
I had trouble with that on the day before when we were out for a walk — anticipating trouble, I tensed, got distracted, and Lula, turning reluctant to come along as a result, resorted to displacement grazing. It didn’t help that whenever I pulled and she moved her head away, I tended to release and reinforce the grazing. To cut a long story short, it took us a while to get going again.
Bearing in mind the mistake I had made, I tried maintaining my composure as we approached those dogs. When I sensed Lula quickening her pace however, so did I — our nervousness becoming a back-and-forth exchange. Iona, who picked up our tension, bunched closely behind us. I had an ‘oh shit’ moment as we hurried past the kennel, but what a relief it was when we came out of it safely. Even better was the sense of achievement of having had a moment of panic but not giving in to it; had I resorted to old habits and pulled at Lula’s head in an attempt to keep control, it would’ve certainly ended in disaster.
The woods on the other hand, were a bliss; lots of fun little obstacles to step over. To Iona, it was all one big adventure.
We even stopping for refreshment at a local petrol station.
A horse’s tendency to do what others are doing was beautifully demonstrated by Iona: we had only one bucket, and, their heads not fitting together, Lula and Iona had to drink one at a time. Lula had her fill, but as I walked away with her, Lucy pointed out that while Iona did not drink enough, she was coming along anyway — I had to walk back together with Lula for Iona to have her drink from the bucket, too.
As we walked away from the petrol station, following a path through a field, Lula again became reluctant to walk along, going rigid. I managed to refrain from pulling this time too; I relaxed first, inviting her to walk along with me. Through patience and a little help from Iona, we resumed our walk.
We moved as a little group. Even Melón, one of Lucy’s dogs, frequently joined us. It was not about leadership, or about imposing myself as some “alpha” mare, for oftentimes it was Iona and her mindless frolicking that gave her dam the incentive to walk onward. It’s simply what horses naturally do with each other — they stick together, for throughout their evolution as a species, their survival has depended on living in family groups and maintaining bonds; not so much by kicking each other around.
Without immediately realizing it, even I became more trusting, relaxed, and consequently more mentally present. Being careful in not letting the leadrope go too low and long for Lula to trip over it, I was at times beside her, in front, and even following her. While I still kept vigilance so that Lula and I wouldn’t bump into or trip each other, I don’t think I’ve ever been this relaxed in leading a horse — at least since I was a kid. For the vast majority of the time, the leadrope wasn’t even all that necessary.
After crossing the second road on our journey (making sure there were no passing cars of course), a break was well in order and I let Lula graze on some sweet-smelling grass. The surrounding quiet, coupled with the rhythmic sound of Lula munching the grass was, for lack of a better word, peaceful. Taking in our own pleasures was a reward in itself.
I was supposed to follow a path, but at some point Lula had other ideas. You were probably wondering what to do if the horse chooses to walk in a different direction than you do, something with which I struggled terribly when I walked out Lula for the first time. As Lucy showed in her demonstration with me, it’s not about actively pulling — but just standing in place. You behave like a tree, immovable but not rigid, and the passive pressure the horse would feel from the halter would be as if the leadrope got caught in the branches.
Upon reaching our destination, I let go of the leadrope, and while Lucy and I were sorting out the fencing, Lula and Iona placidly grazed, utterly uninterested in going elsewhere. The first time we went walking out and stopped for a break by a stream, I can remember my hesitation when Lucy told me I could let go of the leadrope — having had experience with being tethered, Lula was unlikely to step on it and hurt herself. But it was the thought of leaving the leadrope and the horse won’t go running off that was alien to me. I had gotten far too used to horses who so dread going out — who need a lot of “pushing” in order to keep going — that they’d run back to the stable the moment they have the chance to do so.
. . .
Growing up as a domestic horse, I think Iona’s immensely fortunate not to be subjected to the constraints horses her age normally face. Yet to be halter broken as of the summer of 2019, she’s the most social and optimistic youngster I’ve ever encountered.
When we walked out, she never wandered too far, her delightful outbursts of mindless galloping sessions and agility stunts a sight to behold. She followed me around not because she was trained to do so, given treats, or because she feared punishment if she didn’t — she simply did so out of her own volition. One of the most cherished memories I have from that summer is of Iona taking in her surroundings as she stood at the top of an uphill, her shining coat the colour of copper juxtaposed against the blue of the sky. To her, the world is simply full of wonders.
Comparing Iona’s upbringing with that of many young horses, they live in such contained and supervised environments — most especially when valued — that the outside world becomes a frightening place to be for them.
Even I learned how much of a “domesticated” human I am. Walking out with Lucy’s horses, and my experience as a volunteer in general, revealed just how little I have to process in my daily life at home. It was a whole new level of discipline that I could not have experienced elsewhere — not even in riding schools, where I would have to go from A to B by following a marked out line. Not being in a controlled and cushioned environment, I would have only myself to fall back on — in other words, to use more of my brain and my senses.
. . .
I remember telling Lucy that walking out with her horses felt like a sort of homecoming, in the sense that I felt I had finally come full circle in how I want to be with horses. For years I sought that joy of interacting with horses as friends instead of as subordinates, going from Monty Roberts to Alexander Nevzorov, frequently having to reroute myself because I realized something was lacking.
I’ve long been disillusioned with the term “natural” used in horsemanship, as the tools and techniques employed, such as the use of the “carrot stick” and so-called “games” make absolutely no sense in light of how horses actually interact with each other. I’m further worried about the popularization of the term equitazione etologica (ethological equitation) here in Italy, as I fear it’s merely “rebranding” Natural Horsemanship methods.
I’d rather avoid labels; to me, it’s simply about finding an approach that’s not only effective but symbiotic, and that the best way to get to that is through objective study. Like taking note of how feral horses move on a variety of terrain, keeping themselves fit and improving their proprioception; how that fosters problem-solving when they have to pick their way through heavy vegetation or a downward slope. And how they do it all together, as a cohesive and synchronous unit — and not because a mythical alpha mare is getting them to move their feet. To integrate this within our interactions with domestic horses would be as natural as we can get.
Photos courtesy of Lucy Rees.