• Kathryn Hulland

“The problem here is that there is nothing natural about what we are doing.”

I was re-reading some of my favourite passages in a few books of mine, this is from Dancing with your Dark Horse by Chris Irwin:

Chapter: Calm and Collected “The phrase “natural horsemanship” for example is a dangerous oxymoron. It suggests that horses are fine as they are, that humans screw them up, and that the trainer’s job is to return the animal to its original state of grace. The problem here is that there is nothing natural about what we are doing. We are not only trying to convince prey animals to allow predators on their backs and control their every movement, we are trying to get them to like it. Trying to pass this off as “natural” causes confusion that results in real physical consequences for both horse and rider. The natural conformation of a horse’s back is inverted, not rounded. Some breeds are more naturally rounded than others, and alpha stallions and mares in the wild achieve that state for brief moments, but you will never see a consistently rounded and collected horse cantering around in the wild. It emphatically is not natural. While it is vital to understand a horse’s natural behaviour too much emphasis on the “natural” results in riders sitting atop inverted horses. That’s bad for horses because its back then has less strength to carry the rider and is drastically inhibited from achieving maximum forward impulsion from its hindquarters. And it’s bad for the rider, too.”

I’ve shared the full paragraph but the words that always hit a note with me are “The problem here is that there is nothing natural about what we are doing.”

No truer word spoken – horses are prey animals why would they let and like a predator on their back, can we really expect this from them? Should we ride at all? There is only so far we are able to go to keep horses as naturally as possible, it’s simply impossible. When healing I have come across many horses and ponies, in particular feral ponies born on the moors free, struggling with the concept of life with us humans, they can’t comprehend why they have such little say over their own lives and it’s frustrating for them, their solar plexus chakra is often unbalanced as a result of the lack of their own feelings of self-empowerment.

Once roaming free with their herd suddenly they are shut in a box unable to see and touch any other horse, turned out a few hours a day not knowing what other horses will be there, if any; given human company an hour or two a day when much that is unnatural is often demanded of them. It’s no wonder so many struggle with the concept of their life as it is with us humans. And yet so many are so accepting of it and happy, even if they don’t understand it. They try so hard.

I’ve had healing sessions with ponies who try incredibly hard to hold it together because they know what is expected from them, they trust their owner and they are fighting their natural instincts. During the healing session I feel their anxiety and all their nerve endings firing.

Inevitably at times those that are holding this may let go at unexpected times, it’s all too much for them, they suddenly explode – a bit like us humans when we’ve been holding in too much eventually it has to all come piling out, some may shout some may cry; horses will do the same, some may react by internalising the stress and have health issues others may seemingly randomly explode. But if you know horses it's not really a surprise, on occasion the quieter a traumatised horse is the more dangerous it is because sometimes they may turn from a freeze to flight or fight mode.

I've seen ponies trained from feral with people getting headcollars on in an hour leading, and pushing for more. The pony is seemingly compliant, but actually it thinks its dying, it's given up. Given time the pony may start to come out of this and that's when you may find yourself with a completely different, possibly dangerous pony. It's so important to know what you're doing and to be able to read the signs and not push too soon.

With the best will in the world we can only do so much for the worst cases and over time in the right home, with continuity and understanding those nerve endings will fire less often but they may never stop firing entirely. It's these horses I feel the most for too because they become known as troublesome and keep getting sold on, rehomed over and over which builds up their trauma more and more.

We owe it to these beautiful animals to make their life the best we can; no we can’t give them a natural life, we will never replace a herd member or be another horse so although some techniques may help mimicking how horses behave, they aren’t stupid they know you are a mere human!

We must give them choice when we can, we must give them respect, we must ask permission, we must give them reason to trust us and trust our judgement, we must help them to be in the best physical condition for what we ask of them and we too must be the best we can. We should be authentic around them, we shouldn’t bottle up our true feelings and lie to ourselves when around them, they know, they won’t trust this and we owe it to them to be honest if we want them to have the best possible life with us.

We can’t all let our horses live out in a stable herd 24/7 with all the land they should have to roam, as much as we’d like to, we can however chose the best options available to us within our means, we can acknowledge our own restrictions and if we can't put in the work needed to do things properly with our horses we shouldn't be doing it and asking the impossible of them.

Most importantly we can all spend lots of quality time with them just being in the moment, joining with them in their world, nothing asked of them.

Dancing with your Dark Horse – Chris Irwin

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