What Is Horsemanship?

Updated on February 2, 2019
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

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Horsemanship (noun), is skill in handling and riding horses; acquirement, skill, accomplishment, attainment, acquisition—an ability that has been acquired by training. That is the technical definition. Anyone can read or skim over that and say they understand it, but to those of us who are immersed in learning the art of it, it runs a lot deeper than that definition.

When we are little kids, we don't say to our parents, "I want to take horsemanship lessons." What do we say? We say we want to take "riding lessons." So that is what the average non-horse experienced family does. They find a local farm and sign their child up for "riding lessons." Maybe it crosses their mind that their child will learn things other than riding, but to these people on this stage of their horsemanship journey, the horse is just a tool for the sport of riding. You can't take riding lessons without a horse to ride right?

We all start on our horsemanship journeys at different ages and stages of life, as well as for different reasons. Some love horses and want to just be around them, others have a competitive goal in mind—they want to learn a certain discipline. Others get signed up unwillingly by their parents or expected that they will ride because they have brothers and sisters that do.

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We all start out on our journey with the one thing in common: a fascination with the horse. For centuries, people have been smitten by the beauty and power of horses and wanted to be with them and learn more about them.

Whether we start out our horsemanship journey super enthusiastically or whether we are reluctant about it. Most of us all start out the same way: we learn the basics of how to be safe around a horse, how to groom a horse, tack a horse, and then finally we begin to learn how to ride.

Riding, as many find out quickly, is a lot harder and less glamorous than it looks from the outside looking in. Once a lot of people realize this, their horsemanship journey comes to an end. They tried it . . . too hard, too dirty, time to move on to something else.

In my opinion, those that are left after that initial time with horses once they realize how challenging (physically and emotionally) it can be to work with these animals, are the people that begin a true journey of horsemanship. These people begin to rise above the group as the great horse people, rather than just a competent one.

It comes when you realize that a horse is not a tool or a means to an end. It is a living, breathing creature—one that thinks differently than we do, and communicates differently than we do. When we realize this, we start to connect with horses on a deeper level. A great horseman or horsewoman soaks up every little bit of information that their horse gives them, both under saddle and on the ground. They begin to appreciate horses as a species and understand their nature as a prey animal and how it affects their behavior. They also begin to see them as individuals and understand and becomes sensitive to their nuances.

They develop a sixth sense for horses. They learn what is typical and what is not typical behavior. They learn the challenging skill of how to be an assertive leader over an animal that is much larger than you. They learn to control the horse without causing him fear. To communicate with them through body language on the ground. Then to use pressure and release to teach them to speak our language under saddle.

Horsemanship is learning the balance of making the right things easy and the wrong things hard by rewarding, not punishing. Horsemanship is realizing that to truly connect with a horse, you have to put forth the effort to understand why it is doing what it is doing. Figure out why they are doing something and being able to figure out how to get to understand our language or the signals we use to communicate with them.

Horsemanship is knowing every bump and bruise on your horse's body. Horsemanship is developing a sixth sense for these animals you have spent so much time around, that you are able to tell if something is just a little bit off with them.

There are many good riders who are poor horseman and horsewomen. Riding is practically the smallest piece of the equation. To succeed with horses and be a good horseman or horsewoman, is to be a true student of the horse—always open to learning new horsemanship skills.

Good horseman and horsewomen never stop learning. It is a life long process. For some, like myself, it takes over your whole life and you have such appreciation for these animals that we have a hard time fathoming how people can't see the value in horsemanship. How could people just want to ride? There is so much more to horses than riding, that is why I call it a horsemanship journey. You will never stop learning, you will have good times with horses and bad. You won't ever quit or give up.

I understand not everyone has these same feelings that I have, many are content with just riding a few times a week or month. Everyone has the right to enjoy horses in their own way. It just needs to be known that horsemanship is a lifelong learning process, where you put your ego aside, learn the nature of the horse and how to communicate with them. You look for fault in yourself before your horse. You learn to notice any small changes with them, you can when something is a little off before something bigger happens.

If you are one of these types of people we are cut from the same cloth, I hope you enjoy and learn as much on your horsemanship journey as I am. If you aren't one of these people, that's okay too, though hard for us horse-obsessed to relate with.

I hope everyone gets enjoyment out of horses in whatever way works best for them. I just have no shame in saying that in my opinion, true horsemanship is reserved for the dedicated—for those who are willing to start a journey that they know will be filled with highs and lows and are eager to learn and never quit.

True horsemanship requires a special kind of person? Do you have what it takes?

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Are you committed to learning the art of horsemanship?

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