Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.


Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..


Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.


Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.


I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.


Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.


I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.


With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.


*  How to break something down into small chunks.


*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.


* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.


* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.


* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.


 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.


The final point is particularly important.


From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.


We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.


But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.


Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.


Ripplebrook, Victoria 3 Day Clinic

Rules Of Training And Riding For The Uneducated Horse

Just the other day I was teaching how to move a horse’s forehand across. The rider questioned my suggestion that she does not use outside leg against the girth to encourage the shoulders to step away from her leg. Considering the greenness of her horse and the lack of understanding to follow the inside rein or yield off a rider’s I felt using her outside leg would complicate and muddy the clarity of moving the forehand. My explanation did not quell her confusion, so I asked her why did she want to use her outside leg. Her answer was simple and echoed the thoughts of many riders I encounter. “Well, that’s how it is supposed to be done!”


Everything the rider had read and been taught by instructors told her that in order to move the shoulders across a rider should apply outside leg against the girth. So why would I tell her otherwise? Had I lost my mind? Did I not understand the basic rules of moving a horse’s forehand as laid out by all the experts?


I hadn’t lost my mind and I do understand the teaching principles of past masters.


When I was about 14 years old I read Podhajsky’s classic book “The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider.” I read that if I did ABCD a horse would canter on the lead that I wanted. Then if I did EFGH the horse would swap and canter on the opposite lead. Fan-bloody-tastic I thought! I tried it and it didn’t work.


Was Podhajsky lying? Was he an idiot? Was I a terrible rider? It turned out none of those things were the reason my horse didn’t canter on the correct lead or change leads when I asked (well, maybe the last reason was a dim possibility).


What I didn’t know and what the student at my clinic didn’t understand is that the books of esteemed masters and the instruction we both had received were not talking about the horses either of us were riding that day. Their wisdom was intended for another horse that had excellent education on how to follow the feel of a rider’s reins, seat, and legs. Neither my horse nor my student’s horse fitted that category – YET.


I sometimes read on riding forums the sage of advice of members how a horse needs a little more inside leg or the straightness problems of a horse stem from a rider’s shoulders not being perfectly aligned or a forward problem a rider is struggling with can be cured if only they looked more ahead instead of down.  The advice given could be the right advice IF the horse understands those things. But when a rider or trainer receives such instruction it presumes the horse has also received the identically same instruction.


My point is that the rules of riding and the rules of training are not rules. They are recommended guidelines for the education and riding of a horse. But they are not rules and they are almost meaningless if a horse has not been educated in those rules. Consider for example the way dressage teaches to ride a corner with inside leg and outside rein in order for a horse to carry themselves balanced and straight around the line of a corner. A horse does not know automatically know what to do when a rider applies inside leg. If they are on the green side of educated applying the inside leg will almost always indicate to a horse they should go forward with more energy. Yet riders interested in keeping to the rules of most dressage instruction will bring their horse home from the horse breaker and start riding the corners and circles with their inside leg applied. Then they have to get stronger on the reins to ensure their horse doesn’t rush the corner. What the hell is a horse to think? But that is how we are taught in dressage to ride a corner. No instructor ever told me to use inside leg on one type of horse and not on another type of horse. It was always “inside leg to outside rein” on every type of horse.


A horse does not give a damn about the man-made rules of riding and training. Stop trying to make every horse look like a round peg to fit into round holes. Some horses are shaped like square pegs or rhomboid or hexagonal or triangles. It takes work and training to make them into round pegs so that one day they will be able to be ridden in accord with the rules of the experts. So don’t ride them like they are finished and fully educated horses that fit the mould of the finished and educated horses the experts are talking about. It only results in confusion for them.


Photo: Alois Podhajsky was a former director of the Spanish Riding School and published The Complete Training Of Horse and Rider in 1967.

On My Way - Fall 2017 American Clinics


Why Doesn't Anyway Listen To Me???

A friend I have known for many years asked me recently how much does the earth weigh?  I thought for a moment and said it depends, but it can weigh almost zero. This seemed impossible to my friend. He expressed his disbelief with colourful language. I quickly did some calculations using Newton’s equation and told him that the earth had a mass of approximately 5,900,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg (23 zeros), but that it weighed almost nothing. I explained that mass was constant (although this is not strictly true because the earth has a net loss of nearly 50,000 tons a year in mass), but that weight varied depending on gravity. But no matter what argument of logic I offered, my friend could not get pass the idea that since everything on, in and around the earth weighed something, therefore the earth must weigh the sum total of all those things added together. So I was unable to persuade my friend over to my side.


This got me thinking about the concept of persuasion. As a teacher, my working life is targeted to persuading people to my way of thinking about horses and horsemanship. I do this either by presenting my views and demonstrating the positive results they produce or by discussing the flaws of alternative ideas. Most of the time it is a mixture of both.


This seems to work pretty well for the most part, but from time to time I come across people at clinics who seem impervious to my powers of persuasion. They understand what I am saying. They see the results in their horses. But it doesn’t appear to be enough to change their mind. Why is this? I mean I could understand their dogged refusal to change their views if they didn’t understand what I was saying or they found a hole in the logic or their horse became more screwed up when I worked with it. But this is almost never the case. So what is getting in the way of change for the human? I don’t seem to have any problem changing the horse’s thought, but it is sometimes not so easy when it comes to changing the owner’s ideas.


I think part of it is history. We are often emotionally invested in what we do because we have been doing it for so long. I think this is linked to our ego and self-esteem and reluctance to admit to ourselves (and the world) that we are not as clever or talented as we thought we were. We don’t want to be so vulnerable. This is especially true for people who are professional horse people.


A lady came to a clinic that struggled to get her horse to slow down. I coached on her for a while, then suddenly she stopped her horse and looked at me with a frustrated expression and stress in her voice. “You’re telling me that everything I have been doing for the last 30 years is wrong.” My reply was, “No. I’m not telling you that. Your horse is telling you that.” She did not return the next day. Her reluctance to let go of her ego was stronger than her desire to listen to her horse.


Another obstacle can be that we cling strongest to the views and beliefs that we acquired in our early education. Often the first guru that made sense to us is the one whose teaching we have the strongest faith in and we are reluctant to let go of it irrespective of the merit of ideas we encounter down the road. We put so much faith in their infallibility that it becomes impossible to question their teaching.  I think probably every trainer and teacher have a small number of followers like that. We are generally okay about taking on ideas that a consistent with the lessons of our teachers, but rarely do we embrace ideas that are counter to them.


About 4 years ago I agreed to a request from a young woman living in Europe to come and be a working pupil with me in Australia. I knew immediately it was a bad idea when she arrived and told me that she had been working with a certain trainer that she really liked and she would not be okay with anything I might say or have her do that was not consistent with what she had learned from him. I said to her that I didn’t know her trainer, but that she made a mistake coming all the way from Europe to Australia in the hope of learning from me but placing limitations on what she would listen to and what she wouldn’t. Needless to say, she did not have a very satisfying visit.


Another possible explanation for why occasionally I meet an owner whose ideas I can’t seem to shift is a personality conflict. As far-fetched as I am sure you think it is, some people just don’t like me. Whether it is my style of presentation or my corny jokes or my push for them to try harder or the intimidation of my over powering good looks, I don’t know. But it is a fact of life that when somebody has a personality that grates on us, we tend not to embrace their ideas very much. I can think of a handful of people who feel that way and have bad mouth me to anybody who will listen. Anything I say or do causes them to have an instant opposition reflex.


An example of this happened some years back. One person who didn’t like me for personal reasons posted on an internet forum that I was responsible for her horse breaking its hip when it tried to jump out of an arena. The only problem was that I had never met her horse and the whole event had never happened. Nevertheless, the story spread quickly.


I certainly don’t think or believe that I am the teacher or horseman for everybody. I know that every trainer and clinician has their fans and their detractors irrespective of their ability. So I want to be clear. I don’t have a problem with people who don’t like me and are not drawn to my work. That’s not the problem.


The point of this essay is to encourage people to really look at themselves and their reasons for both loving and hating the philosophy and methods of any trainer or clinician they meet. Make sure your reasons are true and honest and not based on irrational bias or personal vulnerabilities. Our horses deserve the best we can possibly offer them and that means we really should put aside our personal flaws and prejudices and consider everything we learn with an impartiality that is targeted towards what is best for our horse. Let go of the ego.