Passive Horsemanship

My interest, passion & experience

Many years ago, and this means in my life time to be about thirty or so years, I had surprisingly gained the opportunity to breed and train my own horses in a western style. My reasons for doing so are not really that important, but it was briefly because I had been forced as a dairy farmer to sell all my cattle to enable me to buy the farm which my family had tenanted. I was totally lost without the joy of breeding my cattle so I embarked upon a new enterprise of breeding my own western horses. With some great effort, I eventually become a western riding instructor and started to teach it as a farm diversification. This in itself had taken me far longer than I had hoped for, because no one could agree on what type of western equitation should be taught in the UK. Riding horses in an English way and milking cows were two things I had been trained to do but now exploring different styles of western riding became an increasing passion.
For me as a child, there had always been something better and far more appealing about the way cowboys rode their horses. Television was of course something I had watched avidly as a child and undoubtedly the programs which I had enjoyed the most had been the nightly cowboy serials. These television cowboys had become my heroes with the way they rode and how they loved their horses and how their horses appeared to love them back. I had never been short of ponies and horses to ride but I felt it had only been our old plough horse that had really loved me back. As a young boy growing up, I now realise today the equitation I had been taught by my grandfathers was very different; one loved hunting and rode in a traditionally English way, and the other had served as a riding instructor for the Worcester Yeomanry during the Boer War. Strangely, adopting a western style of riding due to the fact the horses he rode were Mustangs which had been sent to South Africa from the US to aid the failing campaign.

As a child i had wrongly assumed the way we rode in England was more ancient than the way cowboys rode, when in truth it was quite the opposite. Little did I know at the time that the forward or sports seat, which underpins the English riding seat, was a far more modern invention. The gruesome curb bit, which had been used to control my grandfather’s hunter, which has long hung in our tack room serves as a reminder of the sort of equitation he believed in, for me it is the antithesis of my form of horsemanship and the use of the hackamore which I believe offers a  superior means of communication.

My form of horsemanship - Passive Horsemanship

The term ‘Passive horsemanship’ is my interpretation, of what I saw in the horsemanship of those who founded natural horsemanship in the USA , namely Tom and Bill Dorrance and Ray Hunt. My passive interpretation of the methods they demonstrated is based on understanding how we as humans can express our concepts of advanced humanity with significantly different qualities to that of equinity. It is only then that we can come to terms with our differing emotionality and physical abilities, working together to create something that is more evolved, than either of us could ever be on our own.

My belief is that competitive equitation has always held certain potential dangers in the endeavour for success, which can lead inexorably into aggressive horsemanship. Consider, for example the aggressive way of those who often end up being the least successful in competitions. I’m convinced that their aggressive training methods are the result of a never ending search for more tractable and affordable horses. My concept is that it will always potentially become a distasteful endeavour to those who do not find the ultimate solace of competitive success. Many years ago, I began to look for an alternative approach to teaching western equitation. Sadly, I began to realise that most of what I had learned over the years was predominantly from trainers involved with producing horses for competition or training those who wished to ride competitively. This had ended up for many people as an aggressive horsemanship. So I became determined to try to find another way. Since then, as a western enthusiast, I’ve been learning, practising and teaching the natural methods of ‘passive horsemanship’. This has developed into a lifestyle passion and my book exploring the whole subject of ‘Passive Horsemanship’ will be available soon.

The Magic of the Hackamore

My first encounter with a bosal was when I became a member of a Western riding organisation, which had only started a year or so before I joined it. One of the members had offered to bring me back some authentic western tack from the USA to help me start the western horse I had just bred; and so I jumped at the chance of having it. The consignment this kind lady brought back for me consisted of a bosal, mecate reins and a big thick felt saddle pad to accompany the Western saddle I had just purchased. I remember looking at the bosal with disbelief because I had never seen anything quite like it before. I had been persuaded by this lady to have it and I remember that she thought it was an essential piece of western equipment for starting horses. I had only ever seen a German hackamore before as a bitless bridle and to me it didn’t look anything like that. So although it fitted around the horse’s nose in roughly a similar manner, at first I questioned this ladies enthusiasm, as I could not see how on earth you could use it to persuade a horse to behave itself. My concepts of equine control in those days were sadly based on the premise of causing sufficient discomfort, to force a horse to do what I wanted.

At the time I had a rather simplified book on the subject of making your own western tack and with its help I assembled the hackamore, tying the rope to the bosal to form the fiador, attaching the leather headstall to the bosal and finally wrapping the mecate to form the reins. It all seemed terribly complicated and looked primitive to say the least, I have however always loved learning to tie knots and so in this way the whole project began to strangely endear itself to me.

If a hackamore has any magical property, which I certainly believe it does, it is woven into the skill of its construction through the concept of generating a very different mind-set in the person who uses it, either to train or ride their horse.

I had become so enthused by the concepts of hackamore equitation and in particular the history of the fiador knot, which I still believe is an integral part of a traditional cowboy rope halter and a properly rigged hackamore headstall. So when I went to a Ray Hunt clinic and in front of a large audience as he started a horse, I asked him why he had chosen, what I believed at the time, was a natural horsemanship halter. He became visibly agitated explaining a cowboy rope halter has always been something that cowboys have traditionally used and it was not a recent invention and continued to explain it enhances your feel, commands and timing and as a result, it communicates your release as a passive invitation to the horse.

As a western riding instructor today, I am often exasperated when I try to train people to ride a horse in a passive manner, when they often believe themselves to already be gentle horse loving riders. Unfortunately, I frequently have to explain to them that they are employing techniques, which I define as aggressive horsemanship such as repetitively kicking their horses into a permanently held contact, which they hang onto for stability. The really sad thing about all this is they have no real comprehension of how aggressive their horsemanship actually is and as a consequence they have the ability to desensitise their control of any horse they ride. Resultantly, I teach them passively orientated sequences of control as cues, which are passive invitations to do things and physical aids on an ascending scale to physically persuade their horses to move away from pressure by engendering an instant release on compliance. Today all my horses are trained in this passive way and consequently they believe it is an unacceptable imposition not to ask them firstly to do something passively, primarily because horses understand the emotion of fairness on a similar level as we do.

Introducing the bosal to such a rider, as an alternative to a bit, can be a challenging step because their trust has been placed in a much more aggressive control. So initially they lack the faith in such a seemingly harmless piece of equipment as a bosal, which does not appear to have such a mechanical sanction. In time as they watch me ride a horse in a bosal, they begin to realise what my philosophy is all about, which is to trust in a horse’s natural ability to accept our dominant control. I should mention that a poorly crafted bosal can be every bit as abusive as a bitted bridal in the hands of those who know how to apply it in this manner. But the truth remains, a well-crafted bosal in the hands of the inexperienced, only has the ability to engender a slight discomfort and as long as they know about instantly offering the release on compliance they can be instantly successful.

Today I train my pupils to start their own horses with a bosal or even rehabilitate those animals that have learned to ignore a bitted bridle. Comparing a cowboy rope halter to a bosal is like driving a car down a hill with the engine turned off; it’s fine as long as you are going down hill. By comparison, using a bosal is like having the engine switched on when you get to the bottom of the hill because you can then efficiently accelerate away. For me a hackamore underlines the fail safe properties of a cowboy rope halter because of its ability to give an instant release, but it also gives you enough feel to correct a horse, which allows a novice horse trainer to have a more instant release. I often feel annoyed, when people show how well they can control a horse in a rope halter, when they know quite well the horse finds this device such a welcome alternative, to be ridden in a bitted bridal.

The reality is that most horses once started correctly, will learn to trust in your release but it is increasingly possible today to purchase such well bred horses that they have an inbuilt compliance bred into them. This means that this minority could be quickly ridden with just a piece of string around their necks because they have been bred to be this compliant. Occasionally by chance, it is possible to find one which is naturally inclined to be this way. Such horses I should mention are invariably expensive or represent a rare commodity and if you find one you should consider yourself to be very fortunate. With horses with averagely compliant mentalities your sequences of control must come from your ability to apply the correct type of pressure at the correct level, to allow the horse to learn how to make the right decision easily. So it can learn to trust in your control through the mild discomfort from which it naturally seeks a way to escape from. This negative reinforcement will result in an accelerated learning curve so it is up to the horse trainer to allow the horse to easily escape from such a discomfort and to quote Ray Hunt “To make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy”. This sort of control will in the end turn into a working symbiosis because you have given the horse the understanding that it can willingly partake in how it is being controlled, which to the horse gives them the essential autonomy to trust in your control.

Offering a variety of services including;
  • Group and 1: 1 Lessons in Passive Horsemanship
  • Trail Rides across 200 acres of Cotswolds pasture and woodland
  • Horse training
  • Horsemanship training
  • Hackamore training
  • Horse starting
  • Cow Work
  • Horse Breeding: Quarter Horses and Appaloosas
  • Stables and DIY livery
  • Tack advice
  • Team Building days