On the recommendation of Maire over at Ponies at Home, I've been reading Tom Widdicombe's Be With Your Horse.
There are several things I like about this book. One is that the author is self-deprecating and full of humor; he's not afraid to tell stories against himself, and his motto is, "If I can do this, anyone can." Another thing I appreciate is that he resolutely refuses to base anything on herd dynamics. Not that there's anything wrong with studying herd dynamics. Far from it, but as Widdicombe says:
[W]hy do we have to justify everything with theories? If, say, a horse backs out of our space, why do we then have to turn around and say 'Ah, that's what happens in the herd between the alpha and beta horses' or whatever? The theory may be correct, and there's no harm in knowing it, but is it actually of any consequence? If something works for me, do I really need to know the reason why? If I'm not going to eat to end my hunger or stand up to stretch my legs until I understand the process of how it works ... well, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning using that kind of logic. (p.21)
Widdicombe is also refreshing in that he recognizes the gray areas of horsemanship. Ideally, of course, we would like to always be clear, always be gentle, always be upbeat, etc., etc. However, there are situations where, thanks to the fact that we are perennially imperfect beings living in an imperfect world, things get kind of murky. He gives an example of holding fast to the rope of a horse who is violently trying to get away from him. He succeeds in holding on, and the horse quickly learns that he can't get away in this manner. He is aware, however, that the horse could easily have won the fight and that it would have been much better to avoid the confrontation in the first place:
Ideally, I would rather not have ended up in that situation, but I did. I would have dearly loved to have had a few warm, sunny days with no wind over which to build up such a good relationship with the horse that the thought of running off wouldn't even enter his head. I was on such a potential loser in all that wind that maybe I should have let the horse go on his first try, because I knew that with each subsequent try the stakes for me became even higher. ... I know I got lucky with that one, and I also know I should try not to get into that kind of thing in the first place, but that is what happened and how I dealt with it at the time. (pp. 67-68)
He talks some common sense about the much-vilified round pen:
A round pen provides a safe enclosed environment in which to work the horse. .... Also, for starting young horses, it allows the handler to work the horse loose. ... It is true that it is also a piece of equipment that can be used badly, but this applies to any equipment, doesn't it? The round pen does put the handler in a very powerful position, because the horse cannot run away. Personally, I would not be looking to do anything that would encourage the horse to run away anyway.
I like his insistence that you should always ask rather than tell the horse:
There is a fine line between ask and tell, almost finer than a human can feel, but if we watch the horse and are sensitive to him, he will tell us exactly where that line is. If you cross the line, it often causes the horse to react in the opposite way to the one that you had hoped. (p. 39)
For Widdicombe, there is no formula, no system, no program. It is all about your attitude toward the horse and setting up a good relationship. (p.32) He has a lot of helpful suggestions - setting boundaries, getting the horse's attention, doing "nothing" with the horse, simplifying, etc. But these are not rules or formulae: it all comes down to "how you are" with the horse, treating each horse as an individual, and using the least amount of pressure possible. I like his comment, "With gentle comes respect - with rough comes fear." (p. 56)
Widdicombe's claim that he does not espouse any theory about horses, however, is not 100% accurate, as he believes in that good old idea - you have to be "in charge" in order for the horse to feel safe:
If, in the eyes of your horse, you are not up to the job of looking after him, then he will not be able to relax with you. He won't feel safe and, probably even worse for you, he may well feel the need to start taking care of himself. (p. 32)
Most horses I've met are only too happy to hand over the responsibility of choice if they can find a good strong leader. (p. 37)
I don't really question the truth of these assertions. However, I cannot flatter myself that at present my horses feel I'm the sort of person who is obviously able to take care of business. There is much evidence that I am not that sort of person. However, despite my shortcomings, the horses seem to be pretty cooperative and nice and happy to be with me. They might be happier if I developed a bit more backbone, but in the meantime this is the me that we've got to work with. I feel that the horses are satisfied that, failing my own ability to, say, chase away a bear (or keep George at bay), at least I'm willing to allow them the option to deal with things on their own initiative. Perhaps the insecurity horses experience comes not so much from the handler failing to exude confidence, but rather from a feeling of being trapped - by a human who isn't in charge but won't let them be in charge either. Jenny Pearce, in Zen Connection With Horses, does not set very much store by the necessity for leadership and believes that it is appropriate for the horse and human to take turns at being leader.
Widdicombe has obviously arrived at a very good place with horses. His idea of leadership may be a little theory he has added in as an afterthought, and in fact it may make very little difference to the way he actually behaves. Similarly, he has the idea that you should not allow a horse uninvited into your space, as he believes it creates confusion for the horse if you do not consciously establish a boundary. I imagine that in his personal interactions with horses, he is very calm and clear about what level of encroachment he is comfortable with, which probably is comforting for the horses. But again, I think his "rule" of no-uninvited-space-entering is the result of his good experiences, rather than the cause of them.
Here's something he says which I like a lot:
People who understand everything worry me a lot. People who speak with conviction about worldly matters worry me even more. I've never really believed that we are equipped to understand everything that's going on here, or that we're supposed to understand it either. So when people say they do understand things, my feeling tends to be that they are either bluffing or suffering from some kind of delusion. (p. 73)
So far, so good - I'm only half-way through though, so ... more on this book later!