What we do and teach can be talked about in two parts. There are the Vaquero traditions; the equipment, (especially the hackamore, two-rein and spade bit), and the method of educating the horse through the progression of that equipment, jaquima a freno (hackamore to bit). For us, this means starting a horse in the hackamore, progressing to the two-rein and then to straight-up in the spade bit.
Then there is the approach we use in interacting with the horse. We’ve termed our approach balance/signal/softness.
Understanding how the equipment functions mechanically, and having some knowledge of the history and culture from which the vaquero methods originated and developed, has been crucial for working out the approach. We find the equipment ingenious in its ability to both communicate an extreme amount of signal while simultaneously allowing the horse to protect itself from an overly forceful use of that very same equipment. We believe that the equipment developed along with the approach, and vice versa, and that it is designed to be used and to work in a way exactly consistent with the entire approach. We also feel that this approach is fundamentally different than any other form or school of horsemanship that we have encountered. We use the equipment and some of the methods of the early californio vaqueros because it best fits our needs and priorities, but the equipment is not the important part! It is the approach, the way of riding, that is truly important. The approach can be used effectively with any equipment and work well, while this equipment, if used poorly, is nearly useless.
We feel there are three main parts to the approach.
Balance - This refers to having our body (and our weight) in a position that makes it easiest for the horse to move how we would like it to. For the most part, this means us being centered, or in a balanced or neutral position, where we are the most out of our horse’s way, minimalizing the need for our horse to counterbalance us, or go around or through us. Our body is really the biggest piece of equipment we have for communicating with the horse. It becomes our main cue. Balance matters to horse. As flight animals, they very naturally want to be balanced themselves, and so, in balance with us. We are careful to allow the horse to feel this, by our position, and then encourage the horse to find and stay with this comfortable place. We can then make subtle shifts in our body position, thus slightly disrupting the balance, causing the horse to change in order to get back with, or into, balance. In this way, our body position becomes our main cue for communicating with the horse. We find that the equipment is designed to have a balance point (or strong neutral position) to work just exactly as our bodies can. This idea of being balanced, or getting back into balance, is the heart of our approach being fundamentally based on the horse staying with something good (as opposed to beginning with getting away from something negative).
Signal – Signal refers to any movement (cue) right up to a steady hold. This could be a movement in our body, a spur, or a rein. A signal is not pulling or pushing, not forcing, but suggesting or indicating a desired change. Again, it is the momentary disruption of the balance of ourselves or our equipment that encourages the horse to change in order to get back into balance. Nothing in this approach is held steady. Pulls can be resisted, leaned on, or countered easily. A signal is an indication, a suggestion of what to do, an interruption of balance or softness to encourage a change, not an attempt to physically make something happen.
Softness – Softness is another way of saying a lack of tension. This approach is built on the idea of giving the horse a comfortable place to be – something good to stay with. We think horses do not like tension any more than we do. Even slight physical tension in our bodies creates a hardness that the horse bumps into when it moves; rather into the equipment through hard hands, or into a stiff unyielding leg, or their back coming up into a hard seat from a tense body. This alone can keep a sensitive horse bothered and can discourage any horse from moving freely, supply, and smoothly. We want to be soft enough physically to flow with the horse and to encourage the horse to be soft, supple and smooth themselves. We also want to be soft enough in an emotional aspect, to give – to be willing to yield a little, to adjust ourselves, in order to make it easier for the horse to be okay, to get along, and to be more willing to go with us.
Major tenets to our approach to horsemanship:
We are trying to offer the horse a comfortable place to be. We think three aspects of this comfort that are instinctively important to the horse are balance, minimal tension, and some amount of purposeful leadership. We show the horse that comfortable place and then encourage him to stay with it. In this manner, the foundation of our approach is to encourage the horse to stay with something good, as opposed to get away from something negative.
We are trying to ride the horse through their body, from our body, not by pulling them around by the head, or pushing them around with the leg or spur.
We are working on changing ourselves. To be physically and mentally in a manner to make what we want from the horse truly as easy as we can for it. (Not just the lesser of two evils.) We are working on changing ourselves, not so much the horse.
Lead by example. Be what you want your horse to be. Softness begets softness. We can’t fairly expect our horses to be how we want them to be if we wait for them to be that way first, before we are willing to be that way ourselves. We need to be that soft, or confident, or relaxed, or smooth, or precise, or tolerant, first.
Balance matters to the horse. It matters enough that they will adjust (move) to stay in balance. We can show them that “place” where they, and we together, can be in balance and encourage them to seek that, and to try to stay with it. We can then momentarily disrupt the balance in order to encourage them to change (move, adjust) in order to get back into balance. In this manner, we encourage them to seek out, and to stay with, something good, as opposed to basing our interaction on creating something negative that they want to get away from. It may be a subtle difference, but it is an important difference to the horse. Even if it comes down to simply being a different mindset on our part, it is extremely different in the reactions we get from the horse, and even the entire relationship we develop with the horse - that of always having a good thing for them to stay with, as opposed to beginning with something bad for them to get away from. (Excuse the repletion, but it is intentional.)