Saturday, April 4, 2009

More on Empowered Horses

A confident, impish, empowered horse, Altamiro steals this journal author's shawl.
(Photo: Leslie Town)

On April 2nd, Martha Cook, from Trafalgar Square posted a comment to my journal entry on the newly published book, Empowered Horses written by Imke Spilker. (follow this link to read the entry:
In the event that readers of the Journal of Ravenseyrie might not follow up on comments that are posted, I'm taking the opportunity to put Martha's comments in today's entry so that those who are interested can take advantage of the generous offer she's tipped us off to.

Martha wrote:
Many thanks for spreading the word about Imke's work and EMPOWERED HORSES! I'm bookmarking your blog so I can follow as other people discover EMPOWERED HORSES. I'm writing from the book's publisher Trafalgar Square Books. If any of your readers would like to join our e-mail list at, they will be eligible for a special discount and advance notice of EMPOWERED HORSES and other new publications.

Soon, I hope many of you will have copies of Imke Spilker's book in your hands (Trafalgar's Horse and Rider site says the books are due to ship April 20th).

The Ravenseyrie herd has followed Kevin on a walk down the bluff/Summer 2007

This relaying of Martha's comments in a new entry prompts me to share with reader's a little more of what Imke Spilker's work represents.

Our sense of what a horse is, is vitally important in how we approach relations with him. Do we admire him, yet fear him? Do we think him recalcitrant if he resists doing our bidding? Do we think we must make him know we are "the boss" otherwise he will take advantage of us?

Bella accepts grooming her least favorite spot much better at liberty than if held fast by a halter.
(Photo: Leslie Town)

Because horses are large, quick and powerful many of us have been instructed that they are dangerous animals which must be dominated and taught to obey us as leaders. Typically "respect" and "obedience" are gained from the horse through restricting his movements using enclosures, halters, bridles and bits through which the human hopes to establish a means of "communication" which, in these circumstances, always is coupled with a certain intimidation and varying degrees of discomfort or pain. This type of training, whether it is done crudely or done with the finesse one admires in an exquisite classical écuyer, always takes something away from the horse in order to gain compliance. Is it possible to appeal to the horse in a way that gives rather than takes and is free from pressures which the horse must yield to?

Yes! And this is precisely what we will learn about when we read Empowered Horses.

An example of "mutual grooming, the Sorraia stallion, Altamiro, nuzzles my hand as I itch his back.
(Photo: Leslie Town)

Kris McCormack, (who translated Empowered Horses to English) sent me a copy of an article Imke Spilker had written over ten years ago. This article appeared in the German publication, Freizeit im Sattel in October 1997. Kris translated it and as we wait for Empowered Horses to be delivered, I thought it might be inspiring to share the last paragraph from this article, titled, The Horse Too is Allowed to Say "No".

To come to an understanding with communicative horses, the person must absolutely not be an “expert.” On the contrary, a “newbie” is more open, giving the horses space comes easier to him. The horses are happy to teach us and enjoy that role. A prerequisite is that the person has learned to pay attention to his partner, the horse, and respect his wishes. The horses senses whether or not a basis of mutuality exists. Once it is established, both parties can develop their sensitivity, to themselves and to the other. Intuitive understanding functions (only) in both directions. Naturally, we are asked whether this kind of interaction can become dangerous for the human being. Horses are by nature peaceful beings who do not make victims of weaker ones, and who scrupulously avoid deliberately hurting someone. Danger exists when the person applies pressure and force, and the horse can no longer retreat from the situation. A horse who has the possibility of walking away, whose needs for peace and space are respected, will harm no one. A game into which the horse is pressured is no longer one (even if the person is amused by it). On the other hand, without force or threat, even the most strenuous exercises can be playfully easy for the horse. One must learn to let go, and one must think from the horse’s perspective – that is all too gladly forgotten about. To me there is nothing safer than communicating with horses in this way -- anything else strikes me as too dangerous. I do not like battles because someone always has to lose. The message that comes across when we communicate with one another depends to a large degree on how we say something. That applies to communication with horses as well. A horse must be able to say “no” at any time and have the freedom to leave, and then we human beings must design our work in such away that the horse truly benefits by it. --Imke Spilker

Zeus enjoys a facial currying out in the big wide open at Ravenseyrie.
Photo: (Leslie Town)

What new levels of understanding will humans grow into from such interactions with horses? How much more satisfying and true our time with horses will be when they chose to be with us and stay by our sides completely at liberty because they find time with us fun and interesting and empowering!


Anonymous said...

Hi Lynn,
Thank you for sharing more of Imke's writings. I am so eager to get this book! I was wondering wether you could post the translation of the entire article or email me a copy? I have looked for other information about Imke but have not found anything translated in english. DO we find out any more about her background in the book? Her website really doesn't talk about her at all, and I would love to know more about her.


Kris McCormack said...

In response to Leah --

The focus of Imke's work is the empowerment of horses. This begins by taking human beings (including herself) out of the "spotlight", and giving the "stage" over to the horses. What is important is what is going on with the horses -- what they have to say, what they are feeling.

Imke considers the horses of the "Communicative Horses" project the true authors of the book ("Selbstbewusste Pferde"/"Empowered Horses"); she sees herself as their "translator." So you will not find any more information about her within the book's pages.

The article from which Lynne quoted is under copyright ... In her enthusiasm to spread the word about this extraordinary book she probably forgot that I had asked her to keep it strictly to herself. :-) My plan was to get permission to re-publish the article in English (in a "sympathetic" magazine), but I wanted to wait until the book was actually available for purchase. I promise to let Lynne know when the article is available and I'm sure she will let you know.

Best regards,

leah astrup said...

Thank you for your reply Kris. I understand what you mean about not putting herself in the spotlight. I have just been so intigued by her work that I wondered what her background was.
I look forward to reading the whole article when you find the right magazine. I wondered have you presented it to Nadja at Horses For Life? It would seem to be a great fit, as Nadja has given voice more and more to like minded people.
Anyways, you probably already have some places in mind. I can't wait to read more. I have pre ordered my book and can't wait for it to get here!


Lynne Gerard said...

Kris wrote: "The article from which Lynne quoted is under copyright ... In her enthusiasm to spread the word about this extraordinary book she probably forgot that I had asked her to keep it strictly to herself. :-)"

Gulp! Oh dear, I've blundered here, it seems. I'm sorry for this unintentional transgression, Kris.

Leah, what Kris has written about Imke is something that I really appreciate about Imke's approach to sharing her insights and experiences. For her, unlike so many other equestrians, the desire is not to share "her method". It's my understanding that Imke would like us to learn to perceive the horse differently (as he really is, rather than as a mute underling) and once we do this, we realize the horse will show us how best to proceed based on his own individual capacities. Therefore we do best to focus on our horses and not on Imke herself.

Imke appears to want us to realize that allowing ourselves to perceive horses as thoughtful, intelligent, equal beings who have much to teach us about what their needs, desires and aspirations are opens up a creative sharing of leadership that is much more beneficial to horses as the unique individuals each of them are. A typical "method" or "school of training" or "linear technique" is mainly designed as a "one size fits all" and based on subjugation of the horse. Learning from horses "their way" is completely different.

I liken it to the differences between conventional education of children and the Montessori concept of learning.

Learning via the perspective put forth by Maria Montessori contains these elements (among others), and is very much the way Imke would like us to assist horses in their own education:

--encourage self-direction
--the teacher/guider observes, suggests and supports but does not lecture
--present an environment that prompts the trying out of new things and provides the capacity to practice and hone newly acquired skills
--recognize the intense learning that can take place in self-absorbed moments and refrain from correcting, interrupting or disrupting the focus

The Fun to Learn Montessori school in Mississauga, Ontario recounts their objective thusly:

"The objective of FLM is to cultivate the child's own natural desire to learn by providing a prepared environment. At Fun To Learn Montessori, by using the principles of Montessori education, we provide a motivating and stimulating environment that is designed to encourage the child's natural desire to learn. At FLM, our skilled staff, sensitive and responsive to the learning patterns of each child, help the child to grow in confidence,gain independence,and learn with fun."

This is very much what Imke's work represents with horses, and within the pages of EMPOWERED HORSES we will read many examples her horses have shown how they prefer to learn, and there are excellent photos to assist in illustrating these things.

I'm sure, Leah,you will find the book very inspiring--and then your own horses will show you what sorts of situations and exercises they have predilections for and together you will all hone your skills in such beautiful ways, you will find yourself participating in a living art form.

marisela gould said...


I just wanted to post a question about the letter of Ms Imke. When she states that "a horse that has the possibility of walking away whose needs for peace and rest are respected will harm no one". With the solely spirit of learning their ways and with all respect due, I would like to ask a question based on that statement. How then low rank horses pick on lower rank ones, why horses that aren't high in the hierarchy will charge others only as a display of dominance aggression, etc (choose your word)and it will harm them if the other don't leave quick enough or if caught off guard?. It's their way, it's proactive way of testing their place in the group. They can display this behaviour with humans as well because for this horse we are lower so he can go after us just as they can go after the chickens, it won't matter who but the position, rank, etc they have a that particular moment in the group. Just to mention that the way Ms Imke writes it it's not necessarily so,maybe it depends.
marisela gould

Lynne Gerard said...

Thank you for taking time to leave a comment and pose a very good question regarding what Imke Spilker has written regarding allowing the horse the option to exercise a "no" by being free to leave.

If you would allow me a day or so, I will devote an entire journal entry to the issues you have raised here.

For now, I would simply like to suggest that the relationship we desire to have with our horses is not the same as the relationship horses have with each other...what ever means of communication we share will be unique to our horse/human relationship.

More to follow.

I do appreciate your taking the time to post your comments, Marisela.

marisela gould said...

Dear Lynne,

I appreciate equally you taking the time to read and comment on this question. I also share your view relating to the relationship horse to horse is different from horse-human for a variety of reasons . I would like to illustrate this comment with my personal experience as I have experimented with the horses here. I did this excersise with a low-rank mare here where I played being intimidated by her. It took less than 3 minutes and she already bought my act, her next move was charge me. I show this just to illustrated that some individuals can and will show aggressiveness toward humans even at complete freedom with no restrains. Not all and everyone but there are exceptions. I don't think is about being human or dog, chicken, it's about hierarchy, pecking order or similar concept( again plain personal observations). Ms Imke comment is generalizing horse behaviour and it can be misleading and foster a preconceived believe with which we can force (in our minds) behaviour instead of just accepting what is there, just plain noticing based on blank, nothing, no expectations, just as is not as we wish, hope, need should be. All I did was to use body language and within a very short time it empowered her to charge, ears, teeth , pied-a-terre type of movement and all she had. What I just said it's based only on my personal observations.
Thank you again for your time and thoughts.

Laura said...

I've read these things many times, and I was just wondering...if the horse is entitled to say no, will they ever say yes? Are you giving up your dreams of sport because you let the horse say no, just as a little child would that is having a tantrum? If you look at a horse like a child, they do not always know best, so how must you know when?
Can you ever get back to where you were the natural way? Can you have a relationship with a horse that allows him to enjoy jumping or trail riding as much as you do? Is it possible to compete with an "empowered" horse?

Lynne Gerard said...

Thank you for reading and for taking the time to share your comments and bring forth some very important questions!

"I've read these things many times, and I was just wondering...if the horse is entitled to say no, will they ever say yes?"

Certainly they will say yes, much more than saying no, at least this is my experience.

"Are you giving up your dreams of sport because you let the horse say no, just as a little child would that is having a tantrum? If you look at a horse like a child, they do not always know best, so how must you know when?"

If your horse says "no" to sport, there is a very good reason for it. And even if there is not, the very fact that your horse is reluctant to participate in it should be honored. I do not look upon my horse as children that need to be corrected or punished because they might not want to do something I want them to do. I look upon horse/human relationships (and human/child relationships) as more of a friendship...this tends to make whatever requests I have seem less like demands and more like an invitation to do things together. Why would I force my friend or child to do something she takes no pleasure in or does not realize is necessary for good health? If it is a situation that requires intervention for medical reason or just overall good living choices, I feel with children or horses, force (while often effective) is not the best means of gaining compliance. Taking the time to be more indulgent, more empathetic, more nurturing, more creative will find a way to getting things accomplished that is of overall greater benefit. Remember the Mary Poppins song, "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."?

Thinking of your desire to have your horse enjoy jumping and trail riding as much as you do...did you know that of those books in my library which deal with saddle fitting and equine injuries each one makes it absolutely clear that riding horses is damaging to their backs? Every one of these books will give you pointers or suggestions on how to minimize the damage the weight of the rider poses to the equine structure? What does this have to say, holistically speaking?

I'm going to pose some additional questions that are not meant to be the least bit judgmental, but are meant to provoke deeper thinking, okay?

Can you be certain that your means of training and participating in horse sports are not inducing the "no" in your horse because he/she might be experiencing pain, physically or mentally?

A "tantrum" is the horse's last resort to make his human handler realize that he is in distress.

Do you feel confident that everything you ask of your horse is for her absolute best benefit?

"Can you ever get back to where you were the natural way? Can you have a relationship with a horse that allows him to enjoy jumping or trail riding as much as you do? Is it possible to compete with an "empowered" horse?"

For this flurry of questions, Laura, I'm going to direct you to a recent journal entry, because I think it may be able to provide you with insights that will also give you "a-ha" answers.

Please go to the journal entry made on Novemer 8th, 2009 titled, SeaWorld and Empowered Horses.

The concept of Empowered Horses while seemingly radical, is not happening in isolation. We find with the training at SeaWorld and within Montessori schooling methods, that there are creative, non-traditional ways of learning that release the inherent potential for learning and self-actualization in ways that "give" rather than "take" from the pupil.

Thank you, Laura, for your interest...hope to hear from you again!

Graciela Ganses said...

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