On March 7 this year I posted an essay describing my criticisms of colt starting competitions. A few days later, a friend of mine told me she had been invited to compete in a horse starting event at the Iowa State Fair. I was initially disappointed that she agreed to it. But my friend is my friend and that means I support her decisions in the best way I can. We talked about how she should approach the event and below is what she wrote to me the day after the competition ended It’s long, but I think it is a fantastic read and you won’t regret the time spent.
I should preface this report by letting you know that Ellen is a young trainer in her early 20s and has only been training professionally for a very short time (approx 5 years??). She was competing against trainers with decades of experience.
If you want to know more about Ellen Kealey you can go to her web site: https://www.kealeyhorsemanship.com
I hope this is actually interesting to you. I learned SO much.
Donna (my helper) and I arrived to meet a room full of cowboys. We all introduced ourselves, and drew out of a hat for horses. All of the horses were 4-year-old mares that had been living out on pasture their whole life, and had some basic halter lessons as a weanling. I ended up getting the nicest filly out of the bunch. Her name is Olivia, and she was the largest horse that they brought, she was blue roan in color, and the most sensitive/reactive to stimuli. The owner/breeder of the fillies even pulled me aside to explain that she is a very sensitive mare, and to train her accordingly.
The first few minutes of the competition were spent trying to calmly catch the mare. I probably had her caught within the first five minutes and I was able to do so without getting her too excited. I calmly worked on becoming friends with her, and teaching her to follow her thought with just my feel. I didn't introduce any stimuli for the first hour. This paid off because during my 10-minute break (which I took about halfway through) I wasn't allowed to hold a rope or touch her. I dropped the rope close to the fence, and she hardly ever took her eyes off of me. She was also trying to stick her nose through the fence to smell me and be close to me. The announcer noticed this.
Once I had her thinking forward nicely, and had some decent hq yields and fq yields, I was able to start working with the saddle pad. During the last 30 minutes of the two hours, I was able to cleanly get the saddle on, without any ruckus. The announcer commented that there was no noise coming from my corner of the arena. Meanwhile the other competitors brought a gooseneck trailer full of tools. Tarps, ropes, hobbles, rainbow flags, mattresses, exercise balls, empty cut up milk jugs on a string etc. All of their horses had at least one or two extensive rodeo moments, and a couple of them were on their horses during the first day. One trainer’s round yard looked like an obstacle jungle.
The first day, I came in fourth place, which was fine because I felt like my mare was doing really well. By the time I was done, she was standing with a relaxed top line and a hip cocked to the side. I was happy with my progress.
In real life I probably would've waited to introduce the saddle. I wish I‘d done some flag and rope work before this for preparation. I also could've had her thinking more forward. However, I avoided pushing her to go too fast because I didn't feel that she had the confidence to come back yet if things got crazy, and it would've been strictly fleeing.
Side Note: During the end of the first day, a woman (who was helping another contestant) approached me and said that my technique was really good, and that they needed a dressage or English judge to offset the scores. She also appreciated that I wasn't carelessly letting my horse buck around.
The mare was much more unnerved and upset. By this point, the other competitors had their horses completely desensitized, and they were getting noisy with their whips etc, and there were tons of people coming and going. It took a lot more to get her attention on me, and she was definitely more nervous and reactive to everything going on.
I began by trying to get her relaxed and doing some groundwork. Then I introduced the flag, which she was extremely reactive to. There was no curiosity, only tension, so I had to gather the flag in my hand, and slowly introduce it while giving her support. The encouraging news is that during my break after this, she still chose to stand next to me for the duration of the time. She was still curious and would notice everything, but was looking to me for some support.
I then worked with the saddle, and decided that she wasn't ready to cinch on that day. I did not want her to have a bad experience, and her mind was going quickly from all of the constant stimuli. She started out a little jumpy with the saddle, but was able to accept the saddle a little more by the end. I ended by rubbing her down, and asking her thought to come back to me in various areas.
I scored very low on this day. I felt like I was put in a bit of a lose/lose situation, because my horse was the only one who wasn't flooded and who was awake and aware of everything going on around her. These competitions force a lot of people to use flooding techniques, simply for these reasons.
I went into this day with more agendas then the first day. This did not serve me well. I was loosing sight of my purpose, which was to introduce a new technique while not caring about what everyone else was thinking. In other words...doing what was right for the horse. I thought I might get to ride by the third day, and it was really hard for me to let this go, and be ok with myself. I knew it was not right for the horse, but it is really hard during a competition. I also began to realize that rushing them is not something that represents my style of training.
I was still receiving positive recognition from the announcer (who owns these horses). They consistently acknowledged my relationship with the horse, my quietness and the drastic difference in technique in comparison to the other competitors.
Donna asked me:
Q. If you had to choose to be somebody's horse, whose horse would you want to be?
A: Obvious answer in my mind... I would want to be my horse. For many reasons...
Q. If there was nobody else in the arena, would you be happy with the progress that you made with the horse today?
Q. Would you rather flood the horse, look good in the public eye and place higher knowing that you damaged the horse for whoever got her next? Or would you rather do things your way and score less, but know that you are doing the right thing?
A: That is a trick question.
They put us in an arena the size of a 60 ft round pen for our 45 min warm up before the pavilion. This could've been dangerous, but I kept soft eyes and was able to avoid troubles (I think part of this was also luck).
I worked my horse with the flag, which she was extremely curious about today. She wanted to sniff and chew on it, so I let her and from then on it was like she accepted me touching her with it, and was able to actually let go and move forward from it.
After this I did some basic rope work around her girth area to prepare her for the saddle. When I saddled her this time she was fantastic and relaxed. No hints of wanting to get a hump in her back, and was able to do some nice trot, walk and thoughtful turns on the line with slack at times. I was beyond impressed with her. When we led them across the road to the pavilion she stayed with me the whole time, and would even softly stop and shift her weight back when I took a step back. I could cry I was so happy.
Guy Mclean on his saddle horse worked the horses loose in the pavilion. My horse did great, walk trot canter with minimal stress, with my saddle on. I was then able to catch her and do my groundwork. While everyone else rode, I did all of the obstacles on the ground. I was able to get one foot at a time over the pedestal, and back her off of it softly, walk and place each foot forward and backwards over trotting poles, walk over sawdust bags, and do some nice leg yielding and side passing off of the feel of the lead in hand.
While the other competitors did a walk trot canter "horsemanship" portion, I stood in the middle with my horse and kept her focused on me. I will also say that when the other riding contestants were asked to back their horses during this time, I was also asked to back my mare from the ground and my horse had the softest back up of anyone! I was so proud!
Then we each had five minutes to show our stuff individually. Everyone else rode, and two of them stood on their horses and cracked a bull whip. These horses were so sweaty and shut down. My final run consisted of in hand work on the ground over all of the obstacles. My horse did great, and I was so happy.
I placed last, but I was just thrilled that my horse was able to actually be aware, and still stay with me through all of the commotion today.
None. I am finally proud of myself, and glad that I stuck it out doing it in this way. I was not there to please them, and this was a really hard lesson to learn. I wanted to repeatedly slap myself and cry on Saturday night, but what I needed to do was stick to my technique, and let go of what everyone else thought or expected of me. I was the youngest, smallest and only female contestant, and this was my first time attending an event like this. I'm not sure if you can really compare apples to oranges anyways.
My goals for the future are to gain more experience using this technique, and to learn what I can from you and Harry. I am not sure that I need to compete against other people who are not like me again. This specific approach often takes more time at first, but does not risk the horse's mental/emotional wellbeing. The changes are often harder to see from far away, but are profound on the inside of the horse. Training horses from the inside out is actually more financially sufficient from a business perspective, because the changes can be more lasting if they are continued. Conditioned responses aren't worth as much because the horse doesn't actually understand what is being presented. This technique, which can also be related to flooding can also work as a barrier between the human and the horse, mental engagement, ongoing conversation etc.
My other critique of myself, is that I wish I had thought more about what I wanted to say over the microphone during my breaks. I got so involved in working the horse, that it felt like they were interrupting me during a timed academic test that I thought was going well. I was on a roll and didn't want to stop.
I also discovered something totally awesome. I can't even begin to explain, and it started by listening to an interesting person who was presenting before the filly starting challenge. I can't wait to explain what I learned sometime. You might think I'm crazy, but what else is new.
I think that is most of what I experienced. I also want you to understand that I cried A LOT. Overall, I'm happy that I did this, and I learned so much, even if it wasn't easy. My biggest set back was my own critiques and comparisons.
Tired, sore and exhausted.
I am proud that Ellen is my friend and colleague. It’s hard for anybody to resist being competitive in front a crowd. It says something amazing about Ellen that a young women with limited experience was able to place the welfare of her horse first while trainers with many decades more experience were focused on getting their horses ridden in as short a time as possible.
The photos are both taken at different colt starting competitions – Ellen on the left and Guy McLean on the right. I think there are only 2 questions to consider.
1. If you were a horse, which one would you prefer to be?
2. If you owned one of those horses, which trainer would you want handling it?