charles wilhelm

What qualifies a person to be a horseman or horsewoman? I think maturity is the number one factor. By this I mean handling horses over a lifetime. We can certainly have a talent for horses and get along with them but being a true horseman or woman is not something learned over night. I was first introduced to horses as a teenager and I thought that every older cowboy I met was a horseman. As I matured and began to understand and develop a connection with horses, and through a lot of mistakes I saw and made, came to terms with the fact that not every rider is a true horse person. For example, growing up I was taught that problems were always the fault of the horse. As I progressed in my understanding I formed the opinion that problems were caused by the horse 25% of the time and 75% of the time by the rider.

This change in my thinking was due to the influence of the people around me. No matter what occupation you are in, you are only as good as the people around you who influence you. When I grew up there wasn’t a lot of teaching or break down to a specific approach. For example, at that time there was hackamore training but there wasn’t much true rein work going on. There was little appreciation of the vaquero way. At that time the vaquero way of training was avoided because, in my perception, it was a very negative approach due to a lot of mishandling of the horse.  With time, through trial and error, patience and a better understanding of what vaquero training was, my views broadened and changed. 

One key to being a true horseman is having different experiences with many horses. You learn what works and what does not.  With more experience my thinking changed and I decided the problems were 50% the horse and 50% the rider. However, about thirty years ago I came to the conclusion that it is never the horse’s fault. Some people have a hard time accepting that philosophy. When you look at things in perspective you must understand, first of all, that it is never the horse’s fault because a horse is always going to be a horse. A horse does not have the ability to reason or rationalize. It is up to us to learn the language of the horse so that we can communicate productively. It is relatively easy to learn how a horse communicates. As I describe it, all horses come from the factory kicking, bucking, biting, striking, rearing and bolting. These are all perfectly normal characteristics of all horses. This is how they communicate with each other.

Some horses are certainly easier to get along with than others. I was the first person to come up with specific definitions for distinct horse personalities. There can also be a combination of two types depending on how the horse was raised and handled. You can have the baseline personality and then the luggage that comes with it brought on by man. Most horses that come in to the ranch for training have been spoiled, many for years. It takes a long time to work through the issues that are created when a horse is spoiled and get down to work with the horse for what it really is. It is like peeling the layers of an onion, to get to the base personality and core of the horse. Spoiling a horse blocks true communication because it allows the horse to have its own way. It will become belligerent and argumentative when asked to do something it doesn’t want to do. This is a manmade problem.

Horses are prey animals and come with the flight/ fight mentality. It is our job to let them know in the most gentle but firm way that this type of behavior is not acceptable. Working with a horse begins with learning the horse’s language so that you can communicate with the horse in a way he will understand. When you look at it that way, it is never the horse’s fault.

A horse that comes in here that is labeled a “rogue” may be tough to work with but from my perspective that horse is just uneducated. It has never been taught acceptable behavior. A horse that kicks someone because it was startled when the person walked into the stall is not a rogue. It has never been taught to accept people coming into the stall or to accept pressure from people coming near it. It is never safe to come up behind a horse because even the most well trained horse can be startled. Kicking out is a horse’s natural reaction to protect itself from something coming at it from behind. In a pasture, the horse could bolt away but in the confined space of a stall, the natural reaction is a kick.

If you are not having a good ride with your horse, what is your responsibility? All horses are going to resist at some point. Some have less resistance than others. Some are very compliant and easy to get along with but that is probably only five or ten percent of horses. The rest of the horses out there are harder to handle because their emotional levels are higher. Your horse may be too much for you. You and/or your horse may need additional training.  The relevant point is that it is up to you to recognize and deal with this situation.

Getting back what a horseman is, it is the ability to recognize and deal with a problem. It is growing and willing to be open and learn. I have learned from many people along the way. I have heard clinicians say they have learned everything on their own. I don’t buy that. I can’t watch an amateur or a professional work with a horse and not learn something, even if it is something that doesn’t work. The horse always has the final say. I’ve seen people work horses and nothing gets better. They keep struggling and trying to work through it. Especially as a clinician, we are put into a situation where we have to perform. While we feel the need to perform, what makes a good horseman is knowing when to stop and back off. Some of the friends that I have great respect for do just that. There are many good horsemen out there and we don’t have to be in agreement with their style of training but they have a compassion for the horse, a kindness. I think that is the backbone of a good horseman. There are many other aspects of being a true horseman or woman and I’ll continue this discussion next time.