No bit no brakes

Meri and Geoff_EquitanaIt took me by surprise when recently a student I was talking with told me that, on a recent trail ride, a fellow rider had trotted past her uttering these words. “No bit, no brakes!” It surprised me for two reasons…one being that someone she didn’t know would say something like this to her, simply because she was riding in a rope hackamore, but mostly because of what was actually said in itself. Having spent the last 18 years traveling the world teaching horsemanship to people from all disciplines and all walks of life, it struck me as just how ineffective I was being! At how many people still don’t truly understand horses and what makes them tick, and how many people still believe this fallacy and a whole bunch of others.

Normally I’m a pretty easy going person who doesn’t like to rock the boat too much or offer opinions on what other people think and believe when it comes to horses, unless I’m asked. I do try hard to help and to educate them, but I am also mindful of their feelings and prior experiences. I try to guide them to becoming good horsemen rather than just dealing out home truths, as I realise that the process of change is just that….a process that takes the time it takes in order for people to make changes. But this comment from an unknown person came just at the right time for me. It came on top of two other incidents and was simply the tipping point that pushed me into stepping up onto my soap box and speaking up.

You see, I’m someone who cares very deeply about people…all people and all other living creatures as well. I take my role as a teacher and educator very seriously. I know that over all the years and miles I’ve invested into my students, I have helped many, many people and horses and even saved a few lives, so it breaks my heart when I find out that I have missed someone, or let them down. Too many times over all these years, I’ve got a phone call or an email or had a conversation with someone that began, “Do you remember……?” and I know exactly what is coming next. Either the person or the horse mentioned has been terribly injured or even killed. I also know without a doubt that in the huge majority of cases, this could have been prevented. That with a bit of skill and true horsemanship knowledge, the accident would never have happened and the person or horse would be alive today. This has been my life quest for the last 18 years and will be for the rest of my life. To teach people the truth about horsemanship, to truly understand their horses and what they need, to become safe and skilful and reaching all their dreams and goals whatever they be.

In the week prior to the conversation with my student, I’d had two other conversations with separate people that both began with “Do you remember…?” I’ve lost count now after all these years, of just how many times I’ve heard these words and each time my heart just sinks as I wait to hear who it was this time. Often it is a friend of a student, or someone a friend or colleague knows, that they’ve been trying to encourage to come along to an event with us, or to get some help with their horse. They’ve seen the imminent danger and have tried to persuade the person to come along and meet us or get started on our programme, but to no avail. Either they wouldn’t listen or just acted too late.
In these recent incidents, one lady was a friend of a friend and the other was a young girl doing a ‘Horse Husbandry’ course of some description with a leading education programme here in Australia. Both times the girls were on Thoroughbreds fresh off the track and in both cases the horses wore bridles. They were both experienced riders who never the less found themselves on out of control horses, that no bit on earth was going to stop and both of them paid for their lack of horsemanship knowledge with their lives. It upsets me greatly to write this. As a Mum I feel very deeply about these girls I never met. One was a Mum whose children now have to live without her, the other was an 18 year old girl, whose Mother is now living with the heartache that only those who have lost a child can possibly know. I know, you’ll think that riding an ex-racehorse makes the chances of riding a runaway much higher but let’s face it. In Australia we do it all the time. A huge proportion of horses that students bring to lessons with us are exactly that. Horses off the track that someone (usually inexperienced) has picked up cheap. And it’s not the fact that it’s a racehorse as such that is the problem….I’m sure we’ve all seen someone riding a runaway of some description. Horses of all breeds can get a fright and become an out-of-control missile, even little ponies. And I’m equally sure we’ve all seen that self same person pulling on two reins for all they’re worth, trying to no avail to get the horse to stop. Let’s face it, in most cases, the horse only stops when it’s good and ready. If it is scared enough it’ll just keep running until something else stops it, or its flight response runs out. Having a bit in its mouth makes absolutely no difference what so ever.

I’ve done thousands of presentations and demonstrations over the years to audiences all over the world. I’ve written over a hundred articles as well, all trying to encourage people to seek true horsemanship knowledge. To invest in their own skills and become a horseman, not just a rider. We’ve got to stop thinking that all we need to do for success with horses, is to learn to ride and learn the rules of our sport. We’ve got to become horsemen, to learn to truly understand our horses and to communicate with them.
The simple truth is that a bit does not make us safe. Not even close and this kind of thinking will only end up with, at the very least an unhappy horse, or in the worse case, another death. There are so many fallacies around horses still today, that we just can’t afford to be guided by anymore. We can get bigger bits, more body armour, more tie downs and control devices, calmer horse feed and so on, but all these do is show the lack of understanding of good horsemanship. A lack of knowledge about what the horse really needs and what motivates him.

As long as we keep thinking that bits and helmets make us safe (and yes I do think wearing a helmet is important, but there is so much more to being safe than putting one on our head), that we need to kick our horses to go and pull on the reins to stop, that horses have ‘vices’ and need to be trained into submission, then we’ll keep on hearing those words “Do you remember…?” It doesn’t work and it’s simply an antiquated way of thinking. It is an old belief system from a former life and the time has come to embrace this ‘new’ way of thinking and truly develop good horsemanship for our sakes and that of our horses. This ‘new’ way of thinking, that has existed since the time of Zenophon, but that has had a major resurgence in the last 20 years.

There are plenty of great horsemen and women around nowadays proving the merits of good horsemanship (many under the banner of natural horsemanship, but call it what you like) and achieving extraordinary things. And they come from all walks of life. Some are weekend end riders and some are elite equestrians at the top of their sport. But all of them know that developing a horse is not about controlling it, it’s about building a relationship based on trust, understanding and communication. On having a partnership where they take care of each other not one dominating the other. They know that an emotional or fearful horse needs help to become more confident and then impulsive issues or negative reactions will disappear. And that only through willingness and lightness will true unity and grace exist in performance horses.

So that is my soap box. The time has come to admit that things need to change. To admit that the old way of thinking isn’t helping us to stay safe with our horses let alone make progress. I encourage all of you to seek good horsemanship and make that your goal. For your horses sake, for your sake and for that of your family. I know you’ll be glad you did.

Meredith Ransley – Oct 2012

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