This is the first of a series of discussions on critical NHE topics.
Donna Condrey-Miller: When it comes to horses and humans being together there is more than one perspective on how that relationship should be organized. Nevzorov Haute Ecole is a School of hippology with the perspective focused on free and mutual relationships between human and horse, operating from a place of communication grounded in equality.
This differs entirely from the long-time conventional approach of methodological reward and punishment techniques after which the horse is conditioned to behave and respond in compliance based on his anticipation of consequences. While each horse will respond to this approach uniquely, the techniques are more or less fixed with the idea that eventually every horse will reach a certain level of compliance. Unfortunately, the horse has little to no say in what she is to perform and the techniques may escalate from subtle to severe as deemed necessary for the human to reach his or her desired result
Edward Pershwitz: There are many fallacies with this conventional approach. First, the relationship is initiated as a form of control and develops with the goal of compliance, even in the cases when the human sincerely believes that a “connection” or a “partnership” is being built. The horse inevitably gets forced into this “partnership” with various means of coercion to satisfy the ego of the human. Second, by applying or developing one-size-fits-all training techniques the horse is effectively reduced from an individual to a member of a uniform primitive mass with predictable reactions to stimuli. What the human fails to realize is that by mechanically applying a specific set of techniques, it is the human, rather than horse, who renders him- or herself as a member of a uniform mass. And third, the end goal is the result rather than the process, which completely ignores the natural state of the horse of living in the moment. It is no surprise that the horse has no incentive to participate other than to get a reward or avoid punishment, which isn’t a marker for a healthy relationship.
D: Right, generally because there is a mold to fit with that approach, any part of a horse’s natural preferences or capabilities that doesn’t fit that mold must be suppressed. Exactly what the horse should or shouldn’t do is uniform to the method and thus are the problems to be solved identified. If the horse is naturally missing any elements required to fill the mold then he must be forced into it. When the horse fits the mold he is considered good, when he doesn’t he is considered bad, or at least disappointing. I’ve witnessed many humans miss the wonderful horse right in front of them for a lifetime because they only look at what they think a horse should be and do not engage with who the horse is. I certainly noticed this happening to me back when I was following those methods.
E: Ironically those “problems to be solved” aren’t problems at all, but a mere reflection of the human’s inability to approach the horse as a partner rather than utility and to consider some of the horse’s essential needs: the sense of safety, the freedom from pain, the freedom of expression, the companionship with others. As long as these are being ignored the horses will respond, each in their own way, with what humans will identify as “problems.”
D: It comes down to teaching a human how to remove so-called conflict with a horse by obliterating the horse’s resistance. It’s impossible to do this without also damaging your own sensitivity to some extent, if not destroying it entirely. Honestly, the less sensitive you are to the horse, the better the techniques work. De-sensitizing is a key component of training a horse in this manner, but the human student will get similar instruction about herself. “Don’t let the horse get away with that!” is to say, don’t let his emotions get to you!
What is foundational about the School of NHE is that it does not relegate the horse to a role of compliant object, but allows and encourages him to express his point of view, including his refusals, without punishment. While there are a few techniques to consider, it is the principles of communication without force, coercion or judgment that are the basis of building a relationship with the horse. The principles are fixed, but each horse human pair will manifest the results uniquely and creatively.
E: This cannot be overstated. The principles provide the foundation for the entire NHE philosophy and practice but they are not, and cannot be, prescriptive of the specific steps or actions one takes to build a relationship. Unlike training, relationships are unique and non-transferrable. Unlike training, relationships recognize one’s freedom to enter or exit at any time. Unlike training, relationships cherish individuality rather than conformance. There are no cookie-cutter relationships – it is simply impossible.
“Not letting the horse get away with something” has a special place in various training techniques, for it is as common as it is absurd. We seem to forget that since horses have no speech the only way for them to signal anything is by behavior. At first these signals are subtle but humans, in general, aren’t too keen on observing subtleties. Then they become stronger, and stronger, and finally get deemed to be something the horse is not supposed to get away with. What follows is a form of demonstration of “who’s the boss” – another common cliché of horsemanship education. One can run a mental experiment of imagining being unable to speak and trying to signal discomfort or an essential need. At first those signals are completely ignored and then when they become less subtle a form of correction follows. Not exactly a step toward harmony, is it?
D: NHE really is a 180 degree turn of perspective on how to approach relationship with a horse in contrast to training for rote obedience. When we meet a particular horse we may know some very basic things about horses in general, but in order to have a relationship with this particular horse we must pay close attention to what the horse offers of herself without judging it as right or wrong, good or bad. We allow her to contribute extensively to the framework of the relationship. We meet her where she is, develop our communication skills, which include how we receive information, and encourage her expression and thinking, so that we can have a dialogue where her input carries weight.
Without relying on a syllabus of cumulative techniques, we begin the relationship by looking inward and questioning our own motives for why we ask a horse to do anything. We first accept that she owes us nothing.
E: Examining our motives for being with horses and for asking them to do something for us takes a lot of soul-searching and can lead to unexpected results. For as long as our motives are centered around our own benefits, be that tangible or psychological, and the horse is a mere means to the end – however this may be disguised with the delusion that the interaction is driven by our love for the horse – building a healthy relationship would be impossible. True love is liberating rather than imposing an expectation to fit into a mold, and no tokens of affection can make up for taking away the liberty. This is true for human relationships as well, but it is even more so in human-horse relationships as most tokens of affection are completely meaningless to the horse. Ironically, putting the horse first and his understanding of his own well-being before ours may in many cases deprive us of the very motivation to enter the relationship at all, unless of course we are willing to make a shift in our own mind to liberating, rather than restrictive, love for the horse.
D: Helping students consider that horses don’t necessarily like – at all – or perhaps even need to do the things humans often want them to do opens up a path for discovery of what a horse does like to do, what she does need, and how one can safely and healthfully fulfill that for her. How can one engage her in the necessary care activities without violating her trust or causing physical or emotional pain? It’s a deep psychological shift.
E: NHE helps newcomers discover their own way to a honest assessment of their expectations: for the horse, for themselves, and for the role each has in the relationshiop. This can be daunting for people who are ingrained with the reward-punishment style of learning, and the judgmental way of measuring success. The challenge may be rooted in our own upbringing. Our entire system of education is based on developing skills rather than applying principles. This naturally translates into us being conditioned to learn by following a cookbook and to measure success by how well we can produce correct answers. Recognizing that horsemanship is an art where there can be no cookbooks and there are no single correct answers is the most important shift that one has to make to get anywhere at all. For as long as one looks for guidance on how to build a connection with a horse from anyone but the horse, the horse cannot become a partner in creating the connection. Since it takes two to connect, when one is missing nothing can possibly work. While this may appear like a simple idea to grasp, in reality this is one of the most challenging concepts to fully embrace.
D : At first we have to let go of many beliefs and apparent knowledge we have about horses – or as it is said, unlearn – before we can have intellectual and emotional room to recognize and develop new patterns of communication and new measures of what constitutes a relationship. The horse also will experience this transition for herself and we have the added responsibility of not overlooking her need to adjust and heal. It’s very hard to shake the sense that the horse should want to do things for us or that she should like us just because we love her. And when we come to NHE having just decided in our minds that we now consider her free and equal our expectations for her to reciprocate with delight might even grow stronger without our even realizing it. Up until this point we may not have given the horse’s point of view much consideration as being valid and for her to understand her new freedom and acceptance can – and most often will – take time. This can lead to some misunderstandings. One might also feel confused about “how and what am I supposed to do with this horse when I will no longer use physical or psychological pressure?”
When most of the world, so far, continues to run on this system of merely acquiring skills with little critical thinking you mentioned, the new paradigm can feel out of reach as a reality, even with the support of the online Forum. Students of NHE often are still closely surrounded by the very equestrian industry they are wanting to walk away from. In many cases, greater parts of our social lives, careers and even our families have been tied up in the equestrian world. It’s hard to go against that, especially if there is no other NHE person nearby.
NHE seminars are a great way for newcomers and long-time students alike to spend a few days immersed in the culture of the School. Also, since most NHE students still live far from each other, the seminars are a lovely way to finally meet face-to-face.
E: There is a tremendous value in face-to-face interaction. Even though the online Forum is the main resource for NHE exchange internationally, nothing can replace being able to connect with real people who “live” NHE. Internet enables vast opportunities for exchange but online presence is necessarily more measured than human contact. Just like you are a different person when you interact with your spouse, your kids, or your grandmother, our online presence never equals who we are as real people. When I went to my first seminar it was astonishing how my mental image of someone I only met on the forum was different from the actual person. And there was so much to learn just from casual conversations!
D: I enjoy combining the theory discussions with interactions with resident horses at the seminar venue. The horses contribute as teachers themselves by freely displaying their nature. With no promise or expectations of particular results or behaviors participants see living examples of how the basic interactions of being with, and taking care of, a horse are approached with the NHE principles. From there we elaborate the connection to more complex communication potential that goes from games to Haute Ecole elements.
We explain how to evaluate the behaviors of horses, how to receive overtures from the horse and how to initiate or conclude an interaction ourselves. In standard equestrian and training circles the full range of emotional expression and initiative thinking by the horse are cause for action to suppress, but in NHE these are what we tune into as our guides for building an open dialog with the horse. We introduce participants to the concept of cumulative understandings between them and a horse that turn into a deep mutual and respectful relationship.
E: For most people, even horse people with a lot of experience, free expression from the horse is something that they have never witnessed. Traditionally, the training mindset is so ingrained in the way we think about being with horses, that all we see is either rebellion (to be thwarted) or coerced compliance (perceived as harmony). The art of horsemanship is generally reduced to overcoming rebellion and achieving coerced compliance. By doing so, we damage our horses to the point where recovery may take years or even never happen at all. I can only compare it to what repeated rape can do to one’s ability to enjoy intimacy. Seeing what free expression really looks like can be truly eye-opening, and while it may appear to be unattainable with “regular” horses, NHE fosters transformation of the human mindset that enables it to happen in any horse-human relationship.
Register for NHE Seminar with Donna Condrey-Miller September 22-24, 2017 in Sebastopol, California