Can I Call Myself a Horseman?

After getting my first championship ribbon, my first horse related concussion, my first horse related broken bone, my first retraining project, my 5 billionth cleaned stall, my first student, or any other new horse related experience I find myself repeatedly wondering whether or not I can call myself a horseman yet.

Does anyone really know what or who a horseman is though?

I can tell you what a horseman is not.

A horseman isn’t someone who just shows up at the barn to look pretty, or impress people, or to not spend quality time with their significant other (aka their horse). If you do not truly love, value, or at least care about every horse that you come across I don’t think you can call yourself a horseman. If you can’t tack your own horse or clean your own equipment I don’t think you’re a horseman.  If you’ve never touched a roll of braiding tape or perked up at the smell of Show Sheen and fly spray you’re not a horseman.

Dictionary.com defines a horseman as first, “a person who is skilled in riding a horse”; secondly, “a person on horseback”; and third, “a person who owns, breeds, trains, or tends horses”.  Furthermore, horsemanship is defined as “the art, ability, skill, or manner of a horseman.” As a supplement, the secondary definition of horsemanship is listed as “equitation”.  Originating in Middle English somewhere post 1100 AD. Which clarifies my questions perfectly.  Can you sense my sarcasm?

If you simply Google the definition of horseman it tells you that synonyms include rider, equestrian, jockey, cavalryman, trooper, hussar, dragoon, and cavalier.  It also gives you a handy timeline that seems to indicate that the usage of the word horseman seems to have peaked around 1900 and then steadily trickled off, presumably as the automobile gained popularity. Using the handy translate function I learned that horseman translates to…

-French: cavalier or chevalier

-German: reiter

-Italian: cavaliere or cavallerizzo

-Spanish: jinete or charro or caballista

-Dutch: ruiter or paardrijder

-Urdu: no translation found

Which clarifies things only  a little more because I’m familiar with terms like Bereiter and Oberbereiter from the Spanish Riding School which help classify the different ranks of riders there.

By the way, here is one of the first articles that I came across about the Spanish Riding School system on Dressage.com Training of the Riders at the Spanish Riding School by John D’Addamio. If this outline is anything to go by, I’ve got a LONG way to go if I want to call myself even an assistant rider.

The qualifications of a true horseman are still hard to define in my mind at this point so I sought out some alternative theories, the first being Urban Dictionary. Here I found five alternative definitions for horseman.  The second is intriguing because of its emphasis on brotherhood. It casts your ‘horseman’ as the your closest friends with mythical bonds created by choosing your family.

Loosing focus on my original goal and seeking some visual input I turned to Pinterest where I found some fabulous art on the Four Horseman, but nothing interesting beyond the mythological fascinations of very talented artists.

In case you were wondering the Four Horseman are the harbingers of the apocalypse, appearing the in the New Testament.  War and his fiery red horse Ruin, Death and his pale horse Despair, Conquest and his white horse Glory, and finally Famine and his dark horse Fear.

Here’s my favorite series of images, The Four Horseman by Daniel Karamudin.  I love these images because they seem eerily similar to the descriptions in Irish mythology of a pooka or puca, meaning spirit or ghost, which is a omen of either good or bad fortune. A pooka could change its form and would often appear as a black horse with flaming eyes and mane or a rabbit. Some historical accounts treat them as wickedly playful and mischievous creatures, young colts with chains around their necks, who could bear you across the night skies on an unforgettable adventure and return you safely to your bed, or drop you from the sky…sounds like a few horses I know of.

The Scots have a similar creature, the kelpie, which is said to live in the lochs and pools that dot the countryside.  The Scots go a little further than the Irish, saying that the kelpie would keep its hooves when it changed into a human, keeping it closer to the devil than a faerie.

Digression over.

Not having made much progress I reverted to my own impressions of what a horseman was and one of the pictures that popped into my head was of a Western rider.  This seems a little too narrow of a definition to me because I am an English rider 99% of the time. Not because of any inherent bias but after goring myself on the horn of a Western saddle one to many times and strongly preferring direct reining to indirect, I usually opt for an English saddle.  So I decided that perhaps horseman should possibly refer to someone who can ride, well, anything and do it competently.

Perhaps this is the key! Competency should definitely be a characteristic of a horseman, in fact competency in many things should probably be stressed. Competency in what though? Definitely not just riding, horse care should probably be in there. What about teaching? Teaching what? Probably horses and riders, but most importantly horses. How about a time requirement? Well, that doesn’t seem quite so fair so how about an experience requirement?  Experience with what though? Should there be a checklist?

Have you ridden a horse?  Well that seems too easy. Have you shoveled poop repeatedly and routinely for a significant period of time? Warmer. Have you gotten a horse related concussion? Hmm, warmer I think.  Do you have the ability to know what a specific piece of tack is and how to put it on a horse and use it correctly? Warmer still.  Can you stare down a 2000 pound animal and know that you have the boss mare of this two person herd? Hotter.  Can you train a horse to do something? Hotter again.  Do you know the exclusive and rare dialect used by most individuals of the horse world? Warmish.  Can you successfully survive boarding barn politics and social cliques? HOTTER.

So we’ve determined that in order to call oneself a horseman you need…

  1. The ability to ride a horse, any horse, including but not limited to
    1. geldings
    2. mares
    3. ponies
    4. stallions
    5. young’uns
    6. old’uns
    7. untrained’uns
  2. The ability to take care of said horses including
    1. nutrition and food related endeavors
      1. pasture management
      2. ration building
      3. supplement administration, etc.
    2. fitness
      1. in hand exercise (Physical fitness for those horses you can’t/won’t/shouldn’t just jump on and ride)
      2. under saddle exercise (Physical fitness for those horses that you can at least attempt to jump on and ride)
      3. counseling (Mental fitness for those horses that just need a little bit more personal time with you…or you with them)
    3. health
      1. vaccines
      2. wound treatment
      3. rehab
      4. worming
      5. vets
      6. farriers
      7. chiropractors
      8. psychics
      9. massage therapists
      10. acupuncturists
    4. tack selection and equipment management
      1. fitting
      2. cleaning
      3. fixing
      4. actual use
    5. barn care and management
      1. stall cleaning
      2. poop moving
      3. poop disposal
      4. shavings selection
      5. stall selection aka the barn seating chart
      6. air flow management and draft prevention
      7. mud management
      8. fire prevention
      9. construction
      10. electrical instillation
      11. plumbing
      12. large machinery use
  3. The ability to train said horses
    1. in a specific discipline, or possibly more than one discipline?
    2. are we talking young horse or retraining horses?
    3. should show experience be required?
    4. should success at showing be required?
    5. proven results are a must
      1. referrals?
      2. satisfied customers?
      3. actual proof that you can do something and not just talk about it
    6. the presence of calm, mentally stable, and capable horses in your barn (Should barn owning be required? Should horse owning even be required?  Lets not discriminate against the dedicated lessee here.)
  4. Some sort of credentials
    1. certifications?
    2. experience in some sort of a structured program be it Pony Club or the Spanish Riding School or a very qualified trainer
    3. standardized testing?
    4. a good reputation?
    5. an exceptional reputation
  5. Miscellaneous skills and experiences
    1. Specific experiences
      1. broken bones
      2. concussions
      3. lacerations
      4. extensive bruising
      5. dealing with a run away
      6. arena skiing
      7. rearing (both in hand and under saddle)
      8. fight mitigation
      9. the ability to catch that little Houdini who always gets out, and lets all his friends out too
    2. fall and injury prevention
    3. creative dismount skills
    4. stickability
    5. a dedicated and extensive history of horse activities
    6. some sort of horse knowledge be it history or mythology or pedigrees
    7. truck and tractor driving skills
    8. truck and trailer driving skills
    9. truck and trailer with horse inside and kicking driving skills
    10. loading/unloading skills
    11. horse whispering capabilities

Ah!  Here we have finally come to the core of my perceptions and preconceived notions of what a horseman is, a horseman is a horse whisperer! I should admit that the Western rider who popped into my mind right at the beginning of this journey was Buck Brannaman.

Buck has been a role model of mine since virtually the beginning of my horse world journey.  I came across his documentary very soon after I started riding and I began to explore his books and life store as a result of this portrayal of his life.  I greatly admire his acceptance of the fact that he is always learning and that he doesn’t know everything there is to know.

Buck’s humility about the things he does and his emphasis on the ways he continues to help the horse and be a voice for the horse are keys to my standard of horsemanship.  He’s had experience doing multiple disciplines, he’s trained innumerable horses, he’s advised many thousands of riders, and he’s always inspired me to seek the best way to communicate with my horse. His calmness and relaxation and sensitivity are perhaps the most unattainable qualities for true horsemanship to me because those are the things that I constantly struggle with.

Recently I’ve acquired another role model, Eitan Beth Halachmy.  Founder of Cowboy Dressage, Eitan has combined the best of both the English and Western worlds.  Although he is most often seen in Western tack, he is classically trained through experience with the Spanish Riding School. Soon after I first met him, and I mean within fifteen minutes, someone had pulled me aside to watch one of his videos, a freestyle routine that included two canter pirouettes, one in each direction, connected with a flying lead change, and all the while he’s smiling and waving to the people in the packed bleachers that are cheering him on. After struggling for almost a year to remember a moment when I wasn’t frustrated at myself or my ability to perform to the level that was expected of me I was flabbergasted by the fact that he looked like he was having fun.  He brought an element of playfulness and lightness to the things that he was doing that I quickly realized were missing from my riding and were the root of my mental struggles.

One thing that connects both of these riders is phenomenal lightness.

Lightness of hands, of touch, of leg, of seat, of aides in general.

Ah!  Here we’ve come the closest yet to what I feel a horseman is.  A horseman is someone who has mastered the art of lightness in all things, in riding and training and caring for and being with horses, and life in general.

So, by this definition can I call myself a horseman?

No, not yet, but it’s a good goal to reach for.