By Anetta Nowosielska
Watching Louisa Raske, horse enthusiast with twenty years of riding experience under the belt, mount her off-the-track thoroughbred aptly named Totally Impressive, requires total suspension of disbelief. This skinny fashion model, who has graced countless pages of magazines and walked miles of runways, climbs the animal with ease and wraps her pin like arms and legs around the horse. Instantly they become one metamorphic creature, with their individual muscular frame mirroring each other. As the two approach an obstacle they will easily jump over, it becomes clear that a rider like Louisa, who is in tune with the horse, brings it to a certain synchronicity that confounds the logical mind with a Zen-like interconnection.
“It’s such a rush to know that I can control an animal of this size,” she says.
Yet, this version of control seems more symbiotic than authorative. More fluid than demanding. Without a doubt building a relationship with the horse that summons such a display of harmony with its rider, requires leadership skills. Even the most stubborn horse will follow if the trainer establishes control by being consistent, decisive and fair. In an ideal, psychologically driven training, a gentle rapport between horse and human is a way of working with that supplants whips and spurs with a whole different approach. But that requires time and commitment.
“I’m out here with him every weekend,” adds Louisa. “Rain or shine, even when he refuses or is lazy, I am consistent.”
To love a horse is to understand it. Whether you are a jumper or a dressage rider or a city slicker with an appetite for equine escapade, in order to thoroughly enjoy the adventure one has to experience how a horse, through its unique senses, takes in the world.
Arguably the most important of equine senses is the horse’s eyesight. Because of their long, narrow heads with eyes on either side, horses have the ability to take in more of the view than humans do. When facing forward, horses have a nearly 180-degree field of vision. They can see in front of and almost all the way around their bodies, with exception of the horse’s blind spot; it’s behind. The very shape of the ear allows the horse to experience incredible hearing facility, which, without a doubt, contributes to its naturally skittish disposition, as well as the ability to process multi-sourced noises simultaneously. Strong olfactory sense is utilized for purposes of recognition of their environment. A successful human/animal interaction is largely based on putting those elements together, while deciphering the subtleties of their body language.
“Becoming highly astute to every nuance of body language from a horse is paramount,” says Elaine Polny, a renowned horse whisper. “You can’t bully your way into your horse’s heart.
Nuances aside, communication with horses is not only filled with commands and affirmations. There are many tangible markers, which riders relay on for training purposes, which is accomplished through tangible signals via voice, hands and legs. Horses easily understand voice cues for starting and stopping. Rein cues are more complex for both rider and horse, and signify more complicated maneuvers. Leg cues are needed for most complex responses, such as rollbacks.
“For a spectator, dressage or jumping is a lot more enjoyable if it’s executed without any visible signs from the rider,” adds Louisa. “But that refinement is very difficult to achieve.” A horse’s personality, thought process, nature and need for herdship all play a role, but as Louisa explains “communication brings the horse into a position of security and confidence necessary to be in partnership with me.”
For a horse to be successful in any of the disciplines it is engaged in, it must learn to perform tasks that are based on natural physiological responses, which are performed with intensity and duration that the horse normally would not use on its own. In order to achieve such a commitment, a rider must consistently engage the stimulus-response-reinforcement theory, equestrian lingo for trial and error. Equestrian psychology in its relation to a rider is vital. A successful trainer is always the dominant member in the human-horse relationship. Because horses are herd animals and innately understand a dominant-subordinate relationship, they will respond willingly to a dominant trainer. Horses are equally sensitive to insecurity or confidence in their riders, and respond accordingly.
While many riders become fluent in the skills required to demonstrate their riding prowess, the one essential thing to bond with the animal can’t be learned.
“It starts and ends with genuine affection,” concludes Louise as she scratches Totally Impressive’s long neck.