Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Recently Greg emailed the following question about spurs: “Why would a Natural Horseman need such a cruel aid??”  Greg gets triple his money’s worth because I’m going to treat this as three questions instead of one.
First, are spurs cruel? Well, the simple answer is no. Spurs are tools and the effect they produce is entirely in the hands – or, in this case, feet – of the user. A more complex way of looking at this is to consider their potential for misuse. The rider who becomes angry or frustrated or embarrassed may use spurring as a convenient way of punishing the horse. This is where the effect becomes cruel because the horse feels under attack; an even-tempered rider might arrive incrementally at a similar amount of pressure and never produce the mental state that goes with cruelty. So, maybe a better answer to the question is … it depends.
Second, why use spurs? Clarity, pure and simple. Without spurs, you still have numerous aids available to you: seat, legs, hands. Even weight, voice, and the picture you’re holding in your mind could be considered aids in communicating your wishes to the horse. But with the spur, you have precision. It’s like you’re saying to the horse, “Move THIS part of your body away from the pressure you’re feeling.” It’s a very specific request. Incidentally, spurs are most useful for 1) lateral (sideways) movement of some body part, and 2) collection, which means elevating the back, getting the hindquarters more underneath the horse, and lightening the front end. Note that I’ve said nothing about spurring to get a horse to go faster. Horses can learn to go faster when spurred but it’s an unnatural way to ask for speed since moving away from the pressure causes the horse's back to elevate and stride to shorten.   
Third, how do spurs fit into natural horsemanship? The natural horseman is committed to working with the nature of the horse and communicating in ways the horse instinctively understands. If you do this, you’re a natural horseman whether you call yourself that or not. Horses understand and respect pressure exerted by a more dominant horse. It doesn’t scare them even when it makes them uncomfortable. Natural horsemen use this knowledge in all they do. A rider using the same level of pressure emotionally or without regard to the horse’s nature triggers a very different reaction, which is not only cruel but dangerous and counterproductive, as well.
I would sum it all up like this: Spurs are useful and humane tools when used by riders committed to the principles of natural horsemanship, whether they embrace the term or not. For everyone else, spurs are not appropriate. My hope is that the “everyone else” group is shrinking all the time. My hope is that one day we can drop the adjective “natural” and just talk about horsemanship. We’re not there yet, though. The distinction is still important.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Black Riders

Black riders. Even typing those two words makes me feel a bit uneasy. It's a shame. We could talk all day about senior riders, or female riders or beginning riders or trail riders or gay riders. (Look up gay rodeo if you doubt me on that!)  But introducing race as a qualifier makes white folks nervous, no matter the context.
This week on radio I had the opportunity to confront that demon headon. A delightful horsewoman by the name of Tassey Kennedy joined me to talk about riding in the black community. It's a big deal. Some organized rides draw tens of thousands of riders. My white guilt had me in a fog of stupid at first. I thought she wanted to expose a social problem that needed fixing. Turns out, we think exactly the same on such matters. People are drawn together by what they have in common. Sometimes it's interests or values or beliefs. Many times, a shared culture figures into this. Black riders enjoy riding with other black riders. Tassey feels the only problem that needs fixing is the lack of awareness that a black riding community even exists. The web site should help in that regard.
Tassey says she's fine with the terms black and white. Everyone understands them, and we just need to lighten up when race enters the conversation. Tassey is actually biracial. Her mom is a white Canadian, and her dad is of African/Caribbean descent. So she’s really an African-Caribbean-Canadian-American. I think.
I confess that I slipped and called Tassey "dear" at the end of the interview. What can I say? I find her endearing. Somehow, I think she's fine with that, too.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


My home office looks out on our backyard. I have an unobstructed view of our two horses all day long. They can also see me. In fact, some days they get as close as they can and just stare at me for what seems like hours. If it’s feeding time, I get the message. But this also happens at other times. I say “they” but, to be honest, I’m really talking about my Quarter Horse mare, Candy. Fidla, our Icelandic mare, has such a massive forelock and phlegmatic personality that you can hardly tell if she’s awake or asleep, let alone what’s going on in her brain. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …
Candy, on the other hand, is somewhat transparent. You can really tell when the wheels are turning. She watches me with bright eyes, ears forward, and head slightly lowered, even if I’m just typing on my computer. So, what’s going on here? Slow day in Horseville? Actually, I think that, for whatever reason, her curiosity is piqued.
In one of our first radio interviews many years ago, Pat Parelli told me that curiosity and fear are mutually exclusive states in a horse. If Candy is curious, she can’t be afraid. As Clinton Anderson would say, she’s in the thinking side of her brain. It’s a good state for a horse. I want my horse spending as much time as possible being calm, confident, and comfortable, thinking rather than reacting. Then when I inject myself into the situation, I just try to maintain that. There may be some health benefits, too. About 60% of domestic horses (and nearly all race horses) have ulcers and experts tell me that stress is the biggest cause. When curious, a horse is not feeling the harmful effects of stress.
I used to feel that I needed to do something when Candy was staring at me. Feed her, pet her, entertain her. Something. I don’t think that way anymore. A difficult lesson for most of us to learn is that smart horsekeeping often demands that we do nothing at all. Simply leave the horse alone. For me, this is one of those times. I’ll keep doing what I do at my desk and hopefully, Candy will continue to find that curious.