One Step Horsemanship (AAEP 2007)

During the annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, one day is set aside for horse owners in the area to listen to experts in the field lecture and demonstrate on specific aspects involved in the overall wellness, training, and care of the horse. This program is known as the Healthy Horses Workshop.

The December 2007 workshop was held at the Osceola Heritage Park, Kissimmee Valley Livestock Show Pavilion, a short distance from the convention site in Orlando. A panel of blue ribbon presenters touched on subjects ranging from dentistry to understanding the art of communication between horse and human. About 175 horse owners were in attendance.

Jennifer MacLeay, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor of large animal medicine at Colorado State University, spoke on Understanding the Science of Natural Horsemanship and David Hayes, DVM, owner of The Pet Hospital in Meridian, Idaho, discussed One Step Horsemanship.

MacLeay told the group that in recent years natural horsemanship has been gaining notoriety among horse circles.

"What was initially seen as being an almost mystical ability to communicate with horses," she said, "is now recognized as being more about understanding a horse's temperament and nature and how these characteristics can be best utilized to develop the behaviors we desire from our horses."

Horses, she said, have exceptionally well-developed senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch. And, she added, they "key in" to body language far more attentively than humans do.

"Horses don't read your mind," she said, "they just pay more attention."

The horse is observant of even the tiniest of gestures, because it is a prey animal and the power of observation is a survival aid in the wild.

Because the horse is so observant we must understand how our actions influence our horse's behavior. She added that horses have an unforgiving memory.

"Once a horse associates a situation, person, or object with an adverse event, it may be difficult to undo that association," said MacLeay. "But, we can use this to our advantage in that when properly associated, stimulus and behavior response can be quickly and permanently taught. Once we understand how to reinforce the behaviors we want, then we can begin to shape more positive behaviors."

One Step Horsemanship

Hayes continued on with that basic theme in a talk titled, "One Step Horsemanship: A Sensible Approach to Horse Handling." He uses the pressure-and-release approach. First, however, he suggested adopting an understanding of the horse with which one is dealing.

We can't outmuscle the horse because it outweighs us 6 to 1 or even 8 to 1. The horseman's approach, he said, should be to crawl inside the horse's brain and seek to understand its thought processes.

"Acknowledge the horse as an animal that thinks, understands, feels, and has emotions," said Hayes. "This is paramount in understanding horses. Relate to the horse just as we would to another person. We all have friends we enjoy. We like being with them. But, we also have people we know who upset us, who push our buttons. We don't like being with them. If given a choice, we always choose the people who make us feel good. It's the same with horses. Allow them the opportunity to choose us as a friend; give them the reason to want to be with us. We should treat our horses as we would our friends. Always be honest, always tell the truth, never be rude, let them know when they have done something unacceptable, and, especially, tell them when they have done a good job."

He then demonstrated his pressure-and-release approach when working with a horse on a lead line. He likened the horse's spine to a spring. When it is straight, it is in neutral and relaxed. However, when it is moved out of that position, energy is created and the horse will seek to go back to the neutral state.

Hayes demonstrated the technique on "problem horses" brought to the workshop for that purpose. Standing in front of the horse, he slowly pulled on the lead rope until the head and neck were moved out of the straight alignment mode. Then, he simply held that position without pulling on the rope. The moment the horse took one step forward to relax its neck and relieve pressure, he rewarded it by releasing all pressure.

In order to establish a good relationship with a horse, one has to spend hands-on time with them. We do this with pet dogs, he said, but often we don't bother spending time with our horses until we want to use them. They should be touched, groomed, and worked with in a pleasant atmosphere on a regular basis, he said.

"I touch every one of my horses when I put out feed for them," he said.

Other presenters included: Rob Arnott, DVM, a practitioner with Saint John Valley Vet Services in Houlton, Maine, equine dentistry; Heather Heiderich, DVM, associate veterinarian with Florida Equine Veterinary Services Inc., in Clermont, Fla., acupuncture and chiropractic; and and Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor giving demonstrations and discussing horsemanship.


Read more about the Healthy Horses Workshop.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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