What is Holistic Horsemanship?

Heidi Potter Explains Holistic Horsemanship

My holistic approach to horses has evolved over a lifetime of caring for, riding, living with and working with horses. In my quest for knowledge I studied under many different trainers with a focus on “Natural Horsemanship”. After years of study I still felt like something was missing. I could get horses to do what I wanted them to do but felt that the relationship with the horse was lacking. I didn’t want a trained robot. I wanted a willing, happy, interested, invested partner. One that wanted to stay when turned back out to the herd.

I’ve learned that when looking for answers it is always best to return to the herd. Observing them in their natural state offers us a deeper understanding of how they achieve leadership and co-exist in a harmonious, peaceful way. We don’t see them repeatedly disengaging one another’s haunches or driving each other in circles. They communicate with amazing subtlety, releasing the request and returning to neutral the moment the request is granted. What they really value is harmony and peace in herd.

These thoughts led me to move away from round pen training and some of the techniques I had long studied and used. In my search for the “missing link” in how to build safe, trusting and enjoyable relationships I discovered Piet Nibbelink, a student of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. Piet opened my mind to a different way of “being” with horses, one where the horse truly has a choice. The round pen became a picadero (square pen) and the work became mostly at liberty. Then, much like my training in Traditional Martial Arts and as a Centered Riding© Clinician, the focus was first on the human. The depth of mindfulness needed to find success in the picadero was refreshing and challenging. The horses were speaking very clearly, offering responses to the most subtle movements or energy from the human. They were given corners to go into whenever they felt a need to disconnect. Re-establishing connection led to a deeper level of awareness and technical knowledge regarding movement, motion, energy, expression, and positioning between horse and human. Horses were not directed or corrected by the use of ropes, sticks, whips or flags. In this particular work we held a rope down by our sides but rarely used it. We were taught to use all of our natural aides before ever lifting the rope.

If things weren’t working it was time to step back, turn away and figure out what YOU did wrong and what YOU had to do differently. This gave the horse the space and time needed to begin a new lesson, for he was our teacher. Learning is difficult, if not impossible, when the horse (or human) is feeling threatened, being chased or is frightened. Creating a calm environment is the top priority in developing a trusting relationship.

After years of study with Piet I was introduced to Sharon Wilsie’s work through her book “Horse Speak.”  Sharon’s work offered even further clarity on what horses truly value and perceive, and what is really natural behavior in the herd. Her lessons have brought me to a deeper understanding of myself and how to better communicate with horses in a way that makes sense to them. The results of this work and sharing it have been very rewarding. It has brought about some amazing changes in horses, their humans and in the relationships they share.

We will always need knowledge, tools, techniques and skills to communicate to the horse about movement, boundaries, leadership and partnership. As their keepers it is our responsibility to support their well-being in all ways, for only then can we create more safe and enjoyable interactions for both the horse and the human. My responsibility and commitment is to meet them where they are, in that moment, and offer them compassion and understanding so that trust can grow.

My book, Open Heart, Open Mind, A Pathway to Rediscovering Horsemanship and Sharon’s book, Horse Speak both offer readers great insights into this work. Their pages are filled with case studies, exercises and lessons to help you on your journey of creating safe, enjoyable and mutually respectful relationships with your equine friends.  Click on “store” to purchase these books and view other resources.