UNDERSTANDING HORSES by Craig Cameron
The Nature of the Horse
Horses are prey animals with the instinct of flight. Don’t forget that the instinct is millions of years old. Horses’ first reactions usually are to run away from something that scares or troubles them. Horses are what they are, so don’t take their responses personally. Horses just don’t do things to spite you. They just do what they think they’re supposed to do.
We have stepped into the horses’ world; they didn’t step into ours. We are asking something of these horses; they’re not asking anything of us. We have to be patient while they figure out what we want and don’t want, and patience means waiting without worry.
Too, the horse is a herd animal, and I should never underestimate the impor¬tance of the herd to the horse. A horse finds safety in numbers. As I work with a horse we become a herd of two —that horse and me. I want that horse to feel safe in this herd of two, with him as the follower and me as the leader. If I am not leading, the horse has no choice but to become the leader himself. Then he starts making his own decisions, and sometimes does what I consider is wrong. That is not the horse’s fault; that is my fault for not taking that leadership role. If I am working through leadership, he’s going to pick up on that through my actions and the way I present myself to him. Then he is learn¬ing what I want him to learn. It’s important that I be confident, in control, and know what I want of that horse at all times. I might not think I’m teaching, but the horse is always learning. So I always must be sure what he is learning is something right and not some¬thing wrong.
It’s also natural for the horse to be afraid. That’s the nature of the horse. He has four legs and the gift of speed, and anytime there’s a problem, his instinct is to run. If he’s put in any situation where he can’t run, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be afraid. But that might mean he’s going to paw, kick, bite or freeze up. He’s going to do what he has to do to take care of himself. That is the instinct of self-preservation, which is the No. 1 instinct of the horse. My job is to present lessons slowly, so the horse doesn’t feel that he has o resort to that instinct of self-preservation. I don’t want to take a predator-type approach. In the horse’s opinion, that is a life-threat¬ening approach. Horses don’t like predatory behavior. I don’t try to make the horse do anything. I’m trying to teach him or allow him to do things. I’m trying to make my idea become his idea by encouraging the right thing and discouraging the wrong thing.
Getting rough with a horse doesn’t build confidence, trust or respect. Remember, confi¬dence is something gained —or lost. You want to build confidence each day. Ask yourself these things every day when you ride: “Did I gain or lose confidence with my horse, gain or lose trust? Did I gain or lose my horse’s respect?” The answers are determined by your style, technique and presentation.
The Golden Rule
Horses are not like people, but in some ways you need to think of them in that way and use the Golden Rule: Treat the horse the way you would like somebody to treat you. Work with your horse the way you would like somebody to work with you.
Good horsemanship is built on good com¬munication, and that is the same thing we strive for in our human relationships. Any good relationship is built on honesty and fairness. We always talk about the disposi¬tion of a horse, but a horseman also needs a good disposition. A good horseman must be willing to change, willing to accept, willing to go slow, willing to work on and better him¬self, and willing to admit to mistakes. On the horse’s part, a good disposition is the horse’s willingness to relate to the rider and accept training. Likewise, we have to be willing to adjust to fit each horse, each situation and each circumstance.
Remember, you get what you give. If you train the horse rough and tough, there’s a good chance you get back rough and tough. However, if you teach with meaning, reason and purpose, there’s a good chance you receive the same. The horse is a barometer of its handler.
To succeed in life or in any career, a person must have a good work ethic. That is every¬thing in life and in horsemanship, too. Horses do better with consistency and routine than they do without those things. That is how they build their own work ethic. We help them do that by not just training, but spending time with them—putting our hands on them, scratching them, rubbing them, so they feel safe around us.
I don’t want to be an intimidator. I want to be part of that horse’s life, just like the wind, the sky, the sun—all of the things he feels are natural and that he doesn’t fear. I want him to recognize me as a friend, as a leader, as someone he can trust. Trust is one of the most important components that I must gain in any relationship, and that is certainly true of my relationships with horses.
A Native Texan Craig Cameron, one of the original clinicians, is on the road more than 44 weeks a year covering 80,000 miles demonstrating the style of horsemanship he has perfected in the last 23 years. Called the “public defender of the horse,” Craig dedicates himself to those who educate their horses by first educating themselves. At an age where most have long since retired the thought of starting colts, Craig Cameron known as “The Cowboy’s Clinician,” starts hundreds of horses each year. Learn more about Craig Cameron at www.CraigCameron.com
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 9, Issue 1