What Does Horsemanship Mean?

In this excerpt from his book Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport—An Irreconcilable Conflict?, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann explores our responsibilities to the horse and whether we can pursue competitive goals while still meeting the horse’s needs in a fair and just manner.

It requires a permanent balancing act to be sensitive to the needs of a horse—a steppe, herd and prey animal—while at the same time asking him for high performance in sporting competitions. Whether it can be done depends on breeding and the sport’s requirements but a bigger question is whether, at the same time, it is possible to remain loyal to the ethical principles of proven training methods.

In the last century, famous riding masters and trainers proposed the following hypothesis: “Competition is one thing; classical equestrian art is another.” This suggests that the two areas can’t be united, but must this be the case? Or can a competitive rider also train classically and keep the horse in the center of the effort? I would like to believe that this is possible.

The booming development of a “horsemanship movement” shows a previous deficit in this area. We live today between two extremes. On one side are a group of professional and semi-professional riders and trainers for whom horses have become devalued as “marketable wares,” subject to training methods that do not fundamentally protect the animals. On the other hand, there is a large and growing group of riders and horse lovers who anthropomorphize horses to the point that the essence of good “horsemanship” and good riding is watered down to a farce. In this group of horse fans, you find mostly people who mean well but are not competent in their interaction with horses or in their training to make the necessary judgments or to assess someone’s work. This is especially true in regard to the retraining of a ruined horse by an expert or to recognize improper training methods.

Occasionally, riders with extreme beliefs come from this latter group. Nothing more needs to be said about this than to observe that more and more people are attracted to bitless riding. With this development, the argument turns on its head. To say the use of a bit is against animal protection is, per se, an inappropriate idea. Those who say it are exposing themselves as ignorant—and inexperienced. Of course there is abuse with bits. But their correct use leads to harmony, which is the core of good riding. An ignorant person might say that all knives must be disposed of because someone was murdered with a knife. Every instrument or tool is only as good as the person who uses it.

There are more and more people with horses, but fewer and fewer horsemen. The people who could be called “horsemen” in the traditional meaning are disappearing. The number of people who grew up with good examples of horse business and learned the necessary technical knowledge is falling steadily in comparison to the number of riders. It doesn’t take just years but decades to gain the necessary knowledge and ability to be a good horse person. What we learn from working with horses brings us further along as a rider and, perhaps, also as a person. It’s not just that horses learn from us. When we are ready, we can learn much from them. This is a great opportunity!

Photo by Kathrin Hester.

Many young people who grow up in the professional horse world learn the “business” from an economic perspective, and perhaps a few important, core principles of the trade. The moral-ethical components of the business are often left by the wayside….

Systematic training is an important objective. For beginners and returning riders, good results in competition serve as a learning incentive. These riders are investing time, money and effort. And, of course, everyone enjoys receiving recognition: An award confirms your competence and strengthens self-confidence. But what does this really say about a rider’s capabilities? Naturally, it is an achievement to place well in a test or complete a jumping course with a solid, well-trained (school) horse. But is this rider then in the position of being able to train a young horse or retrain a poorly ridden horse?

It is difficult to realistically assess our own ability. Beginners and inexperienced riders frequently believe they can ride and know all; experts realize that they can never know everything. Experienced riders don’t say “I can do it!” That may seem paradoxical, but it is easy to explain. Everyone at the beginning of a long path enjoys each forward step: the first canter, the first ride outdoors, the first ribbon. However, the farther we come along, the more difficult the process. With each step, the demand on the capabilities of the rider and the trainer amplifies. We see our own limits more and more distinctly. At some point, we are forced to admit that one human life is not long enough to really learn to ride and be a horse person.

This excerpt from Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here.