If we choose to take on the responsibility of a horse and to do things together (whether it's riding, groundwork or just cuddling), we also need to take on the responsibility for his physical and mental well-being. I perceive being able to work together with a horse as an honor, not as a right. Under no circumstances is it acceptable to force our wishes on the horse. The majority of what we ask of our horse goes completely against his nature and yet, we expect of him to simply accept it. It is the other way around, we need to accept that he wants to live according to his natural instinct and doesn't want anything more on this earth than to get through this day comfortably and happy. A horse will definitely do his best for you, if you do your best for him. If we ask of him to carry us on his back, let it be in a way that he is happy with it as well, not simply because we really want to and "he should just deal with it". He is not a toy, not a servant of our happiness. Nothing we do may cause him any physical or mental stress (with maybe one exception during training, where I want to test his ability to make it out of a stressful emergency situation, but not until I know he has all the tools necessary; don't ask the question before he knows the answer).
To be able to grow, you need to step out of your comfort zone, but there is a fine line between 'getting stressed' and 'extending your boundaries'. It is up to us to find that boundary and not cross it, so that it always remains fair towards the horse what we are asking of him and he stays motivated to work together. He then knows there is something in it for him as well, more than just regaining his rest (release of pressure), which we take away from him in the first place.
I made myself a promise towards all horses (and donkeys) I work with: during everything I ask of the horse, I will consider whether it is fair towards him and that I'm not placing him in a position he feels forced; I will always keep listening to him and respect his opinion; I will do my very best to not cause him any physical and/or mental stress; finally, I will always keep striving for harmony, whereby he is an equal partner, whose trust I first need to earn if I want to receive it.
This promise doesn't mean I will just stand there like a cuddle machine and let them walk all over me. What every horse needs, regardless of how anxious or stressed he is when he comes to me, is boundaries and direction. Part of building a harmonious relationship with your horse is making sure everyone knows where they stand. I do my best to give him clear directions, be pure in my intention, but also definitely set boundaries which are the same every day. This consistency and clarity make me dependable for the horse, when you are dependable he can trust you, when he can trust you he will feel at ease with you and will want to work together in softness. This is also one of Mark Rashid's main principles, a trainer whose philosophy has inspired me greatly. If you can achieve this, you could say the horse has chosen you as his leader, you are a 'passive leader' like Mark beautifully describes. Not the well-known 'alpha', who positions himself in the leader role and enforces respect by chasing others around, but mainly bring about fear and distrust. A passive leader remains calm and persistent at all times, doesn't use more energy than necessary and never uses aggression, even when it is used against him. Also, a passive leader is able to be the follower at times. I think this is a point a lot of people have trouble with, ego gets in the way...
I don't know why it has taken me so long to come across Mark Rashid and his philosophy. I can highly recommend his books to everyone! He has a very refreshing look on working together with horses and looks sincerely from the perspective of the horse. I have come across many other trainers who also work 'according to the horse's nature', but when I take a second look, equality and MUTUAL respect are clearly absent; true alpha's...
Who also inspired me a lot is Elsa Sinclair, from Taming Wild. She has proven that it is possible to train a horse with 100% freedom of choice: no halters, lead ropes, treats, whips, saddle or bridle... pure body language. Yes, it takes longer than when you do use these tools, but how great is it to be able to reach something like this and knowing the horse is in it for a 100% as well. That is a true harmonious relationship. Personally, I rather take this extra time, than achieving a quicker result but also wondering myself whether the 'partnership' is enforced.
We are never done learning. Every horse is unique. Every horse teaches us something. It is not a matter of applying a certain method, because what works for one, doesn't work at all for the other. The key is to be able to sincerely listen to and look at your horse: what does this horse need from me? The wider your foundation of knowledge and awareness, the better you can help each horse.
How do I translate this to real life? By working my way up the pyramid on the clock of the horse and being aware of his mental and physical state during every step of the way. The exercises of the pyramid are a manual, a roadmap, but how these exercises are performed differs per horse regarding time and method (technique). Relaxation and mental presence (focus) of both, the horse and myself, are key concepts during every step. The majority of the pyramid consists of groundwork. Groundwork lays the foundation for everything we do with a horse. It teaches him (and you!) answers to questions we might ask him later on under saddle or on the ground. A child must also first learn the alphabet before you can ask him to write. If grade 1 doesn't go well, it is no use to continue to grade 2, otherwise the child is only going to run into problems and his self esteem and motivation will be affected. Groundwork teaches the horse physical and emotional balance, so that he can control himself and stand on his own four feet. Also, it teaches him to look to you for help in stressful situations and it teaches you the tools to support your horse during these situations and communicate better with him, both from the ground as from the saddle. You truly build a partnership with your horse.
Before the training of these groundwork exercises even starts, I would like the horse to want to be around me, that he chooses me as his leader before I start expecting anything of him. This phase might take a lot of time, more than the following exercises, but this phase lays the foundation of the pyramid. Without this, the entire pyramid is weak. No short-cuts, natural (passive) leadership is something you have to earn. Purely being together is the first important step in this process. Also, I often use energy healing, before training begins, to help the horse find more inner peace. Any emotional blockages that influence his physical and mental state are, as much as possible, released. It helps him get into a more harmonious state of being, so that you start the training differently than when he would still hold on to these emotional blockages (eg. fear, nervousness, insecurity, aggression). When I work with the owner, we will first focus on a certain breathing technique to also stimulate this inner peace within the owner, thereby creating more harmony between horse and owner right from the start.
An approach I often like to use nowadays, regardless of which technique I'm applying, is 'combined reinforcement' (R+/-). This combines negative (R-) and positive (R+) reinforcement. In traditional horse training negative reinforcement (pressure-release) is mainly used, whereby you add pressure to ask something and release this pressure when the horse gives the right answer. You can't get around this approach when working with horses. For example, when you put your leg on during riding, to ask him to go forward, you also use pressure. As well as when you ask him left or right by following the rein pressure. 'Negative' is a technical term that simply means 'remove' (in this case, pressure), in contrast to 'positive' reinforcement, where you add something to motivate certain behavior (eg. food).
Positive reinforcement is an approach you see more often nowadays through 'clicker training'. It is the preferred approach in training most other animals (dogs, dolphins etc). When the horse gives the right answer, you make a clicking sound (often with a special device) or you use a word (eg. 'yes' or 'good', as long as it's always the same word), followed by a food-reward or something else the horse highly appreciates, this could also be a nice scratch (depending on the horse). Food is in general a highly appreciated (primary) reward, since it is addressing a primary need (food is necessary for survival!). The click or word is a so-called bridging sound, it marks the right moment of the behavior you're looking for. Through conditioning the horse learns that this sound is sooner or later (at first, sooner; further on in training, later) followed by a reward. This way he learns that the moment he heard the sound, he gave the right answer and will want to show this behavior more often. A similar thing happens with negative reinforcement, where the horse learns that the moment you took the pressure away, he gave the right answer. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not from putting it on. I would also like to explain how the release of pressure, neurologically seen, contains a little bit of positive reinforcement. When you add pressure the horse's sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing him, for example, to flee (action-mode). When pressure is released and he can relax again, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated (rest-mode). During the transition from the action-mode to the rest-mode, dopamine is released, a 'feel-good' hormone. Also, the secretion of saliva is stimulated - in contrary to a dry mouth during action-mode -, causing the horse to lick and chew, an important signal for us to see that he is relaxing (with a few exceptions, but I won't go into that now). The horse will start to crave this dopamine more, after all, it gives him a good feeling. A food reward amplifies this effect even more, since he then also makes licking and chewing motions. This movement is relaxing for a horse, take a look at grazing for example. A tense horse won't graze, at most as an attempt to calm himself ('calming signals').
Through combined reinforcement, I combine these two approaches. First, I ask something with minimal energy or pressure ('feel') and clear intention and might increase this pressure or energy in tiny steps quicker or slower or not at all, depending on the horse. As soon as I see the horse is processing my request, I keep the pressure steady, thereby preventing to enforce it after all and having the horse get stressed. When the horse is even just thinking in the right direction - this could be a slight shift of weight or simply looking in the right direction - I release the pressure combined with a click/word, followed by a food reward (or whatever this horse appreciates most). This way, the horse does learn to follow the feel in the lead rope and my energy - since these are the basics for groundwork and riding - but he is also extra assured what the right answer is in a way he wants to do it again, knowing there is something in it for him (not just 'rest', which you take away in the first place). As a result the horse is enjoying working together more. Especially with horses that have intense behavioral issues and/or that tend to shut down mentally whenever you want to do something with them, this works very effectively. The light seems to turn back on in their eyes. Sometimes I also work solely with clicker training when working/playing at liberty, eg. with a 'target stick' (soon more about this).
Whenever I use a food reward and the horse is showing the right behavior consistently and with ease, I will phase out the food and replace it with simply a scratch, for example, or just a treat at the end of the session. Of course, I also give as healthy as possible food. Some will say that the horse is only doing it for the food. This may be, though there are strict rules applied when using a food reward (e.g keeping distance, no begging) and he does associate you with doing things that result in a reward. So he also gets a positive association with you and will enjoy working together more. What I also often hear skeptics say, is that the food is just a bribe. The way I see it, it is as much as a bribe as putting pressure on the horse and not releasing it until he does the right thing (negative reinforcement); extremely said, "if you don't respond, I increase the pressure as much as needed, until you do it", sounds like a threat to me... It is up to us to find the right balance. Let the pressure be as soft as possible, only putting a feel in the rope and using minimal energy. More importantly, release the pressure as soon as the horse is even thinking in the right direction, building up your expectations slowly. And let the reward have clear conditions, so that the horse always knows where he stands. 'Natural horsemanship' is a popular term nowadays in training horses, but let's be honest, there is nothing natural about what we are doing with horses. So the least we can do is make it as pleasant for them as possible.