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Reading Horses Vs. Reading About Horses

Posted by vwkoch, 10 August 2009 · 308 views

Horse Handling Thoughts
I have been thinking recently about how frequently people ask over the Internet for help with their horse problems and how useless it can be to try to solve a problem that way. The bottom line is that you canít really learn horsemanship by reading about it. Itís one of those things you only learn by experience.

Iím not saying that reading about horses is bad. You can learn an awful lot by reading about horses, but in the end, if you never actually work with horses, you wonít really know them, no matter how much youíve read. Until you can read a horse, reading a book (or blog or email or whatever) will probably not help you solve your horse problems. Let me give some examples to clarify what Iím trying to say.

Consider the Internet articles intended for people who know very little about horses. One of the things they often tell the reader is that, when a horseís ears are back, the horse is angry. If youíre not familiar with horses, though, does that info really help? If you see a horse with its ears really pinned, youíll probably interpret its feelings correctly, but what about the bored horse, whose ears are only partially back? If the article hasnít discussed ear positions between pricked and pinned, you wonít know how to interpret anything else, and even if it HAS mentioned intermediate ear positions, if you donít know horses, youíll still be wondering ďhow far back is back?Ē Even worse is trying to interpret pricked ears, which can indicate anything from curiosity to fear. If you donít know horses, reading about ear positions will help, but it wonít make you a horseman. Only experience gives you that kind of knowledge.

Suppose youíve been around horses for awhile and you can read obvious things like pinned or pricked ears. Can you now rely on reading to solve all your problems? Probably not. Consider trailer loading, which is one of the most common of horse problems, with TONS of information available for the reading --- but many people still canít load their horses. Often, they blame the horse rather than themselves, but then, they take the horse to one of the shows put on by a trainer familiar with horse behavior, like Lyons or Parelli or Roberts or whomever (in alphabetical order to prevent accusations of favoritism), and the trainer loads the horse in just a few minutes. Is it magic? No, itís just that the trainer has the experience to read the horse and know when to back off and when to push to convince the horse that getting in the trailer is the right thing to do. The signs you read in a situation like that are very subtle, and a person is not likely to learn them by reading about them, even if a writer were talented enough to be able to describe all of them. Reading books is not enough. Youíve got to be able to read horses, and reading horses only comes through experience.

Reading books or blogs or whatever can teach you theory, but it canít teach you performance. You canít learn to ride just by reading about it, and the same is true of training horses. The worst case scenario is when you think you understand the theory but you donít, and often, the only way to find out youíve mislearned a theory is to have a knowledgeable observer tell you so. If you misapply something youíve read, you can make a problem worse instead of better. If things seem to be getting worse, the best thing to do is to stop doing it yourself and find a good trainer to help you.

I donít deny that SOME things can be learned from reading. For example, the flehmen response is pretty easy to describe, and when someone on a horse forum asks what it means when a horse smells something then stretches its neck out and curls up its nose, someone else can usually tell them the name of the behavior --- although Iím often amazed at how some people interpret it. (Another thing about learning by reading is that you want to take everything with a grain of salt unless you can verify it in some way.)

It is possible that someone who knows horses pretty well might describe a problem someone else recognizes AND the asker would be able to implement the solution that is offered, but more often, the person describing a problem probably caused it by a lack of knowledge in the first place, and that same lack of knowledge will prevent the proper implementation of any proposed solution. Most problems Iíve seen described could be caused by any number of things, and a person who could describe a problem accurately enough to allow a diagnosis would probably know enough to be able to solve it without help. In other words, in most cases, itís probably true that ďif you have to ask, I canít help you.Ē You need a good trainer to diagnose the problem and SHOW you how to correct it.

In my opinion, the reason there are so many myths in the horse world is because of people who canít read horses. If you canít read horses, you have to fall back on rules which canít be broken. For example, itís really very easy to hand feed a horse without spoiling it, if you know not to feed the horse when itís being pushy. If you donít recognize the first stages of ďpushyĒ, though, youíre better off NEVER hand feeding. Itís a myth that hand feeding teaches horses to bite, but hand feeding horses improperly really CAN teach them to bite, and if you canít read horses, you shouldnít play with fire.

It takes time and experience to learn to read horses, and not every person can or will make that investment. If you canít, then by all means, keep reading about horses, and learn all you can that way. Just be aware of the dangers of trying to apply theory without someone more experienced being there to help you. Good advice wonít help solve your problem if you donít know the correct way to apply that advice. Sometimes, the showing is more important than the telling.

Excellent thoughts and I completely agree.
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