Observation Skills

"Ladies, do not merely look; please observe." (Charles Harris)

Observation skills are much more than just looking at something. A good horseman notices everything and this takes practice and attention to detail.

1 Being in the present.
Frequently we are doing something while our minds are somewhere else. We get distracted by what happened before or what might happen later; other things around us, other people, what onlookers might be thinking or saying about us, the little things in life that irritate us. Generally these distractions all work negatively on us.

2 Observing with the eyes
It is easy to look and see what we expect or want to see, be this good or bad. In order to see the whole we need to see the small details: notice the smallest differences. Is my horse standing slightly differently? Are there any changes in the muscles? Is that fetlock slightly filled more than usual? A skilled horseman walks through the yard and almost without looking notices that one horse is not quite right and knows that it needs some attention.

Do we really look at the mirrors in a constructive way or do we just glance and say to ourselves "I look too fat". "Isn't my horse lovely/awful". To use the mirrors usefully we need to focus on just one or two things and check that they look how they feel and if not make the necessary adjustments and look again. I am always thrilled to see a rider stop in front of the mirror and take several minutes just going through their check list is this way.

3 Listening with your ears
Not just the ability to hear and take in instructions but also to hear how your horse moves. Is his foot fall normal/usual? Does it sound even? How is he breathing? Your ears are a large part of your awareness of your surroundings and this can work for you or against you. For example if you are aware of every little noise because your horses might spook, that in itself causes the horse to be nervous. On the other hand if you notice an approaching sound which may frighten your horse you can take the necessary steps to ensure that you and the horse remain calm and safe.

4 The feel of your horse
Not just when riding but also when tacking up or grooming. The quality of their coat, the tone of the muscles, hot or cold spots, swellings, dips, lumps etc...Running your hand over the horse's entire body every day may take time to start with but with practice it can be done almost instinctively. Feeling a change in pace or footfall when riding; noticing the quality of the back under the saddle, the muscles in the neck when you pat the horse.

5 That sixth sense
This builds up over the years so that you tune into the horse and notice its state of mind as well as its physical well being. It is that sense of looking across a field and just knowing that something is not right and, most importantly, acting on that information. It is a broad awareness of everything which alerts you to danger which is a key survival instinct - very present in horses and not so present in their (inexperienced) owners!

6 Listening with the heart
Apparently the Chinese symbol for listening includes the eyes, the ears and the heart. Listening with the heart enables you to make choices which are truly in the horse's best interests. This does not mean that you never do anything that the horse does not like, but it enables you to be a true and trustworthy leader.

Finally, your observations skills rely on your awareness. They are not something you switch on and off or only use when you feel like it. I once taught someone who was an "animal communicator" (and earned a living doing this) and while she tacked up Slipper she told me how sensitive she was and she had to "switch off" because she was so sensitive that she would be overwhelmed with what they were telling her. Meanwhile Slipper was doing everything possible to tell her that she was girthing him too tightly and that he really didn't like it. She failed to notice and if I hadn't pointed this out to her Slipper would have had a miserable ride.

If you are a good horseman, you communicate with your horse all the time. This is the purpose of "aids" - you use signals which you have taught your horse to understand. In some respects it doesn't matter if you simply lean forward and kick to canter. If your horse understands you and you both are doing what you want, what's the problem? However there is a universal language used in Classical Horsemanship and if you want to aspire to that it is useful to learn this language and, very importantly, make sure your horse understands it. It really is not that complicated. Quite the opposite in fact as horse have small brains and cannot cope with complicated theories or explanations. They simply respond to stimuli - leg, seat, hand whip, spur - and if you repeat things consistently, they become confident in their understanding of what you want and because they generally want to please, you can give more and more refined aids and they will still do as you ask. If you cannot hear what your horse is saying, you haven't been around horses enough and you have not been paying attention to them.

Erik says that most of his work is showing the rider what the horse is trying to tell them. At first this takes a lot of concentration but with continual practice you start to notice things almost without looking. For example, you feel when a horse loses his shoulder on a circle, you see the bottom latch is not done up on stable doors as you walk past; you hear an unlevel footfall when you lead your horse in from the field; you feel an unusual tight place on the horse's back while grooming; you are aware that one of the horses is not looking quite himself as you enter the yard.

Keep practising!

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