There are a lot of articles out there about the difference between playing with your horse – or working your horse.
In fact there are even camps that say you should never WORK your horse, but always PLAY – as this creates the mindset where a horse can learn, and to work a horse is to drill him endlessly in boring routines…
There is a tendency to think of “work” as being dull, boring – difficult; whereas play is effortless, free and easy
Well I don’t know about you, but I put PLENTY of effort into my play! AND I play lots of complex sports with rules to learn, nuances to understand – so “play” being effortless and easy isn’t the reason I do it…
And you know, I have also been known to enjoy WORK – yep, I admit it. There have been times when I have been working flat out, up against a deadline, staying late, all cylinders firing and absolutely stretching myself to the limit mentally and physically to get it done – and I have loved every second of the experience.
So I don’t think it is as simple as “Work vs Play” – in fact, to me that is a false dichotomy.
These views, are all based on the premise that there is some sort of “trade-off” between “joyful play” and “hard work”—and in this trade off view, we as horse people have to choose between fun and learning, enjoyment and achieving goals – between a horse led world where all is fun and nothing is learned, and a human led world where everything is rigorously studied and no fun is allowed….
But here’s a question: do we as horse people HAVE to choose between learning and fun?
Many people who have been drawn to the natural horsemanship world because of it’s focus on play, DO find their horses and they learn a LOT even though they are enjoying themselves….
So what if we can create an environment where we can have the benefits of work AND the benefits of play combined?
How can we do that?
It’s mostly a matter of mindset…
Horses by nature are curious about the world. “Confidence leads to curiosity” is a trait espoused by many schools of horsemanship. Tom Dorrance used to say “don’t knock the curiosity out of a colt” – because when we have that curiosity, we have the desire to learn that helps create the fun-learning, play-work environment…..
One of the tenets of the Montessori schools for young children is this:
“young children are capable of an astounding amount of learning when given the freedom to explore to their heart’s content, particularly in an environment of carefully prepared, engaging, meaningful explorative activities. In such a setting, learning so called “academic” skills such as handwriting or arithmetic, is experienced as a playful, enjoyable activity. The pleasure and deep satisfaction of such concentrated enjoyment is natural and to be expected because it is consistent with the actual needs of the child. Psychologically the satisfaction derived is exactly the satisfaction that comes from play. As Maria Montessori put it, “play is the child’s work”
What if we treated horses the same way?
Then we would use their natural curiosity and create an environment where “academic” skills could be experienced as a playful, joyful activity. For example:
– confidence in narrow spaces and trailers
– following a rider’s directions
– moving at different speeds
– going into scary spaces with a human’s support
– asking the human for help when “stuck”
and moving on to more advanced skills such as
– balancing evenly on four legs
– moving haunches and shoulders
What if we could create the environment where all these skills are part of a horse’s “play”?
How confident would our HORSES be?
And how confident could WE be, knowing we were working WITH our horse’s nature, and not against it?
Many trainers err on one side or the other. Some want to make learning so much fun that we forget about a curriculum, a goal, a focus – and risk not enabling our horses to develop effectively. Yoga can be fun, but it also needs to be done carefully and in a managed way to make sure we don’t over do things or ask our body to do things it is not yet capable of doing safely!
Some want learning to be “a serious business” – the paddock is for play, now with the trainer, the horse has to “focus” and “work hard” – horses are said to have “work ethics” – as if they are humans. This is a level of anthropomorphism that is not at all good for the horse. These trainers are masters of defining levels, methods, stages to be learned, but rely heavily on extrinsic motivation to achieve these things.
I could go into detail here on the history of the work ethic, religious guilt and the abuse of “moral codes” to develop submission and oppression of the workers – but maybe that’s another blog LOL
The insidious thing about our culture is that we feel if we are enjoying our work, then we also tend to feel guilty – as if for it to be “real work” it has to be miserable in some way.
You know – it doesn’t.
You can enjoy things without feeling guilty
And if it feels easy and effortless – ENJOY that! Cherish it as a time when things are flowing and fluid….
So many of us think that if we enjoy it, it isn’t work – and that there is a big divide between work and play….
What if we refuse to accept this false alternative?
What if, instead of learning vs enjoyment; work vs play – we think instead of an integrated, joyful experience during which learning happens?
If we focus on creating the environment, the activities that enable learning and “work” will occur in a playful, joyful way, with the learning being INTRINSICALLY motivated from within the horse himself….
And who would not want that for their horses?
Who would not want that for themselves?
Yours, in Confidence