Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guest post: Consider Becoming a Mentor for Your Horse. By Franklin Levinson

Franklin Levinson (all photos in this post are submitted by Franklin.)

Consider Becoming a Mentor for Your Horse  
By: Franklin Levinson
Corfu, Greece

I have never really liked being called a natural horsemanship horse trainer. I felt that these terms were misguided, misused and inappropriate. So I began to look for other ways to describe exactly what it is I do with horses. I have several people with whom I do a mentoring program on a regular basis. Generally this is done over the phone (thank God for Skype). I investigated several online and traditional printed dictionaries and all defined the word mentor the same way: “A wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” With the worldwide bandwagon and popularity of so-called Natural Horsemanship training methods and the accompanying confusion and misunderstanding of what that really means (basically it has become a marketing tool for techniques and products that are in no way natural), I have been looking for other ways to better define and name what I think is the best approach to working with horses. I have begun to make available mentorships in my brand of gentle, effective horse training at the new Silva Equestrian & Life Enrichment Center to open on Corfu (Kerkyra), Greece, this summer. In thinking about these mentorship programs, it became apparent to me that humans becoming mentors for their horses is a wonderful way to describe a higher level of horse/human relationship and the accompanying, appropriate and supportive interaction.

No successful relationship with an equine can exist without mutually developed trust. This is the proverbial (ancient) bottom line. Trust is earned with a horse through a variety of wonderful and iconic human qualities, such as those of a great parent, being offered to the horse. In a list of some of these great parental attributes we could include: compassion, patience, kindness, mutual trust and respect, excellent and precise communication, consistency, integrity (honesty, as well as congruency of mind, body and spirit), quiet strength, good resolve, a degree of confidence with excellent leadership put forth and more. 

Additionally, trust and respect go hand-in-hand whether with horses or humans. If we trust someone we generally respect them and vice-versa. If you earn the higher level of trust with your horse, you will receive a higher level of respect at the same time. I have always defined trust as the basis for all successful equine/human activities. There are trainers who use the development of fear to get what they want from a horse. They punish and inflict pain on their horses that do not obey their wishes and commands. We have all seen this sort of training. These trainers feel a need to dominate the animal as they see this as their only option. Many such trainers call themselves experts and have trophies to prove it. I consider these rewards ill-gotten gains for which an innocent horse has suffered. The abusive trainer is easy to spot if you care about your horse and are wise and sensitive about its feelings.

Franklins wife llona with a Skyrian foal. 

Let’s now look at the word wise. I like the following definition, common to the same resources I used to define mentor: Wise is defined as: “Having the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.” Of course, different points of view could be put forth on what is true, right and lasting, and all would be valid. These words are subject to vast amounts of individual interpretation. But let’s look at how they might obviously and quickly relate to horses. Knowing what is “true” for a horse would mean understanding the mind and psychology of the animal to understand how it thinks and what is important to it. Knowing what occupies its attention and what emotions it experiences should be involved as well. Knowing what is “right” for a horse might mean what sets up the best environment and interrelationship situations to assist the horse in having a good and productive life. These things are “right” for the horse to thrive. Certainly a decent, clean, comfortable space to live in would be part of that. Company of its own kind is very important to a social animal like a horse too. Appropriate, concise and kind communication from those humans handling it would be a real blessing for the horse as well. 

For now, I think the most interesting word in the above definition of wise is “lasting.” Things that really last or, in other words, exist in someone’s consciousness over a period of time are few, I think. It seems to me that emotions last. We can feel love for a very, very long time and feel it intensely too. Likewise, hate can linger and linger and eat away at and totally destroy a person’s entire existence. I can honestly, humbly and truthfully say I think it is only the feeling or emotion of peace that can last. Love equals peace and peace equals feelings of safety for a horse. It may experience fear when a predator is present or when it is in pain (just as humans do). But, the horse goes back to peace as quickly as it possible can. This is its natural and most desirable way to be. Physically, this is when the horse is ambling around grazing and/or moving with the herd in a leisurely way. I have found that using a break from pressure (offering a few moments of peace, as a reward, is the single most effective way to reward your horse and to help it understand it has tried to do as you ask. Good, sincere effort is about all we can reasonably desire and ask for from our horses. When we mentor a horse, how we ask for that effort and provide that reward is huge and the most important thing. 

Moving on to the words “counselor or teacher,” we find definitions that imply a direct connection between these two words. A counselor is defined as: “Someone who gives advice about problems.” A teacher is defined as: “A person  http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/who who teaches or instructs, especially as a profession; instructor.”  So here we have an instructor and a person who gives advice. Certainly they share similar goals if both are well intentioned and skilled. The common goal might be helping the well being of the person with whom they are attempting to work. How about applying this to mentoring horses? If we first learn to really have wisdom and understand how the mind of a horse works along with its feelings, we could probably help it to overcome some problems and instruct it, if we have its trust, to do things that both the horse and we would like to do together. This would uplift both of us and inspire this relationship between horse and human to greater and higher levels of development and accomplishment. 

Mentoring a horse successfully is similar to doing the same thing with a human. Many of the same techniques used and attitudes held by the facilitator would be the same in both circumstances. Again we would go back to compassion, kindness, skillful and precise communication and leadership, developed trust, etc. Is mentoring a good way to develop a successful training program and high-level relationship with your horse? I think the answer is a resounding YES! Whether we wish to compete on our horses, partner with them in equine assisted therapy programs like RDA, riding for the physically disabled, or Equine Facilitated Learning for individuals with learning and emotional difficulties, trail ride them, or simply to have a partnership with our horses based on a solid and consistent mentoring program, having such a relationship with your horse would certainly support excellent success in any endeavor you and your horse wish to undertake.

Email Franklin at: franklin@wayofthehorse.org.

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