Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hands-On or Hands-Off? What's the Big Deal?

Real Riders Don't Hand-Off Horsemanship - Horse Collaborative
Raising a hands-on horseman requires a
little patience, and a lot of dirt.

Oh, I do love this topic!  Next to the downside of benign interventionism, it's something that every horse owner needs to think about.  So here it comes again for your consideration on two different levels.

First, though, I promised last week that I'd have two book recommendations for you, so that's where we'll begin.

Book #1:  The latest by Michael Johnson, The Trials of Joe Ben Black, is a new and welcome addition to the learning experiences this psychologist/motivational speaker/roper from Texas shares with us.  In Healing Shine, I, for one, learned a Very Big Lesson indeed.  I learned that if the horse isn't working right, it's my fault.  Yes, always.  Either I messed up the training, am not a good enough rider, or I picked the wrong job for the horse and was too stubborn to admit it.  Joe Ben Black brings a reprise of that lesson along with the new Big One: Stop feeling guilty and fix it!  As with Healing Shine, I highly recommend the audio book.  Michael's voice is part of the charm, and on this book he sings.  Yup.  Singin' cowboys still exist.

Book #2:  The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, by Sarah Knight gives the reader not only permission to stop wasting energy on all levels on things that just don't matter (like who's going to criticize your horse's f*cks for that stuff), but the tools to effect this huge life-shift.  If there's one thing most of us need less of, it's pointless wheel-spinning in service to imaginary goals and standards.  You still have to care about the things that matter, but this book helps sort out the Line the Must Not Be Crossed.

And both of those bring us to today's subject:  Hands on, hands off, and who cares?

Here's where the hands-on meets the road.
This is normal, I swear.
What do we mean by "hands-off" horsemanship?  Off the top (and not in the linked article) we mean those horse-and-rider pairs that have morphed into a threesome (or more) because the rider-owner is either afraid to screw up the process, has insufficient experience in training horses to dare try, or is suffering from anxiety related to the idea of jumping on an incompletely-trained animal whose body mass and attitude might be a bit unnerving.

We also mean the "horseman" (now you can read the article above) who has never learned to groom, do first aid, choose a feed regimen, or convince a horse to stand still for a farrier.  No involvement in the daily care of the animal puts a huge wall between the rider and the horse.  There's no intimacy in the relationship, and if ever you want intimacy it's when you're trying to read the mind of a creature that can kill you with a single blow.

The hands-off rider is the person who sends their new horse out for 30 (60, 90) days' with a pro or who hires someone to ride the horse on site to "get the bucks out" or put a "finish" on the beast.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Without hands-off riders, most trainers would be languishing in their German boots or Resistol hats bemoaning their inability to pay the rent.  Instead, there has always been a need for pros to handle the horses that belong to the folks who can't handle them alone.  It's a wise rider-owner who recognizes his or her weaknesses and accommodates them.  Ignoring them can be deadly.

And hard as it might be to admit, not every rider has the talent or ability to train a horse intended for the competitive life.  There's a reason why only a handful of horses make it to the Olympics.  Part of that is that they also can be short on talent and/or desire to excel.  The other part is that they have not been taught how to use their bodies effectively to eek out every last bit of what talent and athleticism they have.  Not every horse is a Vallegro and not every rider is a candidate for the highest honors the equestrian world has to offer.

The hands-off owner wouldn't know a lame horse if it limped past him on crutches and can't tell if the horse he owns is behaving oddly because he hasn't spent enough time around him to know what normal looks like.

The completely hands-on rider is the do-it-yourself-er of equestrians.  This bold owner-rider was born with few fear genes and is willing to suffer the slings, arrows, bucks and rears that might go along with bringing a new horse up to (or down to) speed.  Many of us fall into this category.  You'll recognize us by the gleam in our eye when someone says, "Gee, I just can't quite get past being afraid to get on Dynamite since he ran me through the barn wall!"  We travel with a halter and lead in one hand and our insurance card in the other.  We are the epitome of what otherwise normal people see as folks with a death wish.  Leery owners love us; insurance carriers hate us.  Most of us will have a good time, rack up a long list of bodily damages and ER visits, and never see a blue ribbon at anything bigger than a locally rated show.  No National Horse Show for us.  We just don't all have the chops for that.  We would, but they're buried in the dirt with our dignity.

Learning that horses don't come groomed and saddled is a plus
for any horseman.

We do, however, all have the chops to wield a muck fork, to fill a feed bucket, and to learn how to take our horse's vital signs and describe his behavior to a vet.  We all can learn to handle our own horses  from the ground.  We can spend enough time at the barn where the horse is living  to learn all the ins and outs of his car and handling.  We can, and we should.

There is a lot to be said on the positive side of both approaches, and this is where the truth lies.  In the middle between the hands-off and hands-on riders are the ones who know when to ask for help but who understand that a horse trained without the long-term rider on hand isn't going to stay trained for long. Nothing un-trains a horse faster than a rider who didn't read the same book, and nothing is more frustrating than a horse/rider pair where only one knows whether the horse is okay to ride today.  And that is the value to combining the two approaches.

Send that young (or sour, or OTTB) horse off to a pro, by all means.  But go with him.  Spend days observing the methods being used.  Take lessons on the horse with the person who is training him.  Watch how he's handled, what he's fed.  Stand with him when the farrier trims his feet.  You'll learn volumes more than if you simply let someone else do all the work.  Use what's available to make your partnership more than just in-name-only.

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