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?
I have noticed that more and more people I meet at clinics are becoming interested in western dressage or cowboy dressage. Even though these disciplines have been around for a while (particularly western dressage), most people I came across were either interested in western disciplines or modern/classical dressage. Very few people were interested in combining the two.
It’s taken a little time for me to get my head around the distinction between these disciplines. Traditional dressage is founded on the European traditions of training horses for war in an effort to create a straight, balanced and athletic horse. The motivation behind western and cowboy dressage is also to create a straight, balanced and athletic horse, but for American-style ranch work. It’s great to see that western people acknowledge the usefulness of dressage in producing a quality ranch horse.
For those that don’t know about western dressage and cowboy dressage, they are largely quite similar, but there are differences. Basically, cowboy dressage is based on the training principles of Eitan Beth-Halechmy. He made the rules, designed the tests and trademarked it etc. To me, it appears that western dressage is a disciplined molded by enthusiast adhering to a mission statement while cowboy dressage came from one trainer’s idea of what dressage for the ranch horse should look like. I think western dressage adheres more closely to the principles of dressage than cowboy dressage, but each has their followers and devotees. I will mainly refer to western dressage in this article because I have some problems regarding cowboy dressage straying too far from the true principles of dressage – but I won’t be discussing them here.
I have to admit that when I first heard of western dressage I thought, “What is the point?” I mean dressage is dressage. If you want to do dressage, then do dressage and if you want to ride in a western saddle and jeans, then do dressage in a western saddle and jeans. That seems perfectly okay. So why is there the need to create a whole new discipline?
Then I realized that my attitude had more than a hint of snobbery about it. I have an interest in good dressage and over the years have developed a protective attitude towards it. I dislike the way modern dressage has become corrupted by competition and I felt that western dressage was another way to corrupt the purity that great dressage can be. So I questioned the need for western dressage when we already have classical dressage. Is it just another branding of a product to sell to the gullible public who want to be able to compete in western gear?
I still have questions about the use or validity of western dressage, but my attitude has softened considerably.
Firstly, I have long argued that every horse should have at minimum of 12 months good dressage training before they specialize into any other discipline (I want to emphasize “good” dressage because there is a lot of rubbish out there too). Good dressage instills straightness and balance, extension and collection, and relaxation and softness – all elements that make a horse a better performer, more athletic, stronger and fitter and give a longer working life. Imagine how much better a racehorse or an endurance horse or a barrel racer, or a roping horse or a polo pony or a show jumper would be if they had a solid foundation in good dressage.
So I applaud the idea to introduce dressage into the western world. I know some might say that reining is a sport with similar intentions. However, the majority of reining is far from ideal in teaching horses to work correctly. A lot of reining horses would benefit greatly from good dressage training.
I also applaud the inroads that western dressage is making to the mindset of western horse people. It is giving them an appreciation of the power of dressage training while still making it attractive by doing away with jodhpurs and double bridles. They can keep their saddle horns and split reins. These options open up the world of dressage to a lot of people who would not normally give it a thought. This can only be a positive thing for horses and riders from the western world.
I’ve noticed that while western dressage has attracted some western people to think about dressage, it is also attracting some dressage people to think about western horsemanship. I believe it is important that western dressage tries very hard to stick to the principles of good dressage. With that in mind, it behooves western dressage to draw some top shelf dressage instructors into their fold. It will never be enough to have western people instructing dressage because the principles of dressage are rigorous and need good people trained in them to ensure bad training does not creep into the discipline. This is very important. But I notice there are several people promoting themselves as western dressage trainers who do not have a solid background in dressage. I think this has the potential to be a major problem for the sport in the long-term.
The other concern for the sport is the promotion as a competition sport. We have seen over and over that most horse sports become corrupted by competition. Dressage itself is suffering from the corrupting influence of competition and money. When competition gets involved, there is no limit to the ability of people to unravel the principles for the sake of a winning ribbon. No horse sport is safe from this.
It is my hope that the increasing popularity of western dressage and cowboy dressage open doors for people to take an interest in dressage training of horses as a way to benefit their horse. I further hope that dressage people may become interested in these disciplines and be exposed to some more modern thinking on horsemanship that is often lacking in dressage training. I can see there are advantages for both worlds.
Video: It appears that the horse and rider in the video are at a fairly basic level. But it makes me happy to see them competing in freestyle. The music is fun and the costume is a hoot. A horse like this will get a huge advantage from training in dressage and it is pleasing to see its owners acknowledging this.
I was recently chatting to my mate, Bruce about the dismal state of competition in the horse world. Bruce was lending a sympathetic ear to my diatribe on the forgotten needs of the horse and the corruption of the ideals of sport that has crept into the competition world in the past 50 or so years. He nodded in agreement in all the right places and muttered a supportive “mmmm” and the occasional “tut-tut-tut”. He even added, “I hear ya mate” a couple of times.
To follow this thread you have to understand a little about Bruce. He knows nothing about horses. In fact, Bruce is downright afraid of the beasts. But come to think about it, Bruce is afraid of a lot of things. I recall at his cousin’s wedding trying to avoid hugging the bride because he has a phobia about lace. Then there was the time he ran screaming from a room because a moth was fluttering about the ceiling light. Yeah, Bruce is not exactly made from the “right stuff”.
The other thing you have to know about Bruce is that in his opinion the world is made up of bastards who are all trying to get him. According to Bruce there is a worldwide conspiracy to make his life hell and everything that is wrong in his life can be blamed on it – I mean everything!
If Bruce breaks a shoelace, it is a conspiracy by the mega-giant corporate shoelace conglomerate to make him buy more shoelaces. In Bruce’s mind, if they can put a man on the moon then why can’t they make a shoelace that doesn’t break?
If the milk in his refrigerator turns sour, General Electric and milk producers are in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies to create upset stomachs in order to sell more anti-nausea drugs. In Bruce’s mind, if they can put a man on the moon then why can’t they make milk that doesn’t turn sour? He once told me that he bet Neil Armstrong didn’t have sour milk on Apollo 11.
This is the sort of man I am talking to about the woeful situation in the competition world – my mate, Bruce. I know! What was I thinking?
Even though I sometimes think of Bruce as being the village idiot in a village full of idiots, once and awhile he surprises me.
After patiently listening to me blab endlessly about the demise of horsemanship in the competition world he finally said, “Ya know what, mate?”
“No, what Bruce?” I asked.
“All ya’d have to do to fix it is ban all them bloody sponsorship deals and not allow any of them #&%* professionals to compete. Make it so that only poncy amateurs can enter competitions.
“It’s only money that’s stuffed everything up. I mean look at the #&%*ing Olympics. They use to be for amateurs and there were no problems. Then some wing nut decided it was a good idea to let professionals into the Olympics and #&%*ed it all up. Now half of those bastards are going to jail.”
At first I thought that was the dopiest idea I had heard in several lifetimes. And I still think it is a dopey idea from the standpoint that the world has delved too far into the lure of money to turn back. Having been initially only mildly tempted by the dark forces of making money from competition, it has know become an addiction and there is no 12 step program or rehabilitation strategy to recovery.
In fact, the addicts don’t want to recover. They don’t even know there is a problem. The governing bodies, the competitors, the breeders, the coaches, the judges, the sponsors etc are all either ignorant that anything is wrong or they are in complete denial. They still cling to the ideals for which their sport was established while at the same time being oblivious to how they have been turned to the dark side by the lure of professionalism and profit. And horses and the art of horsemanship have paid the price for their greed.
Money is corrupting the horse world without people even knowing. And it’s in every facet. In dressage, rolkur and tight nosebands would not exist if money had not lured people away from classical principles. In western, 2-year-old futurities would be unheard of without the enticement of money. In endurance, nobody would be competing with 3-year-old horses if the sport were just for pleasure. In horsemanship, nobody would run clinics with 25 or 30 participants if the clinician got paid the same amount for classes of 6 or 8 people.
Even if there is not a lot of prize money involved, there is still a lot of money to be made from competition success if you are a breeder or saddle maker or instructor or feed company or clothing manufacturer or whatever. And it all has a corrupting influence on the sport to some degree. Furthermore, the winners at the top of the ladder have a huge influence on the attitude and practices of the weekend amateur competitors at the bottom of the ladder. Those professionals set the agenda for the rest. It’s not so much a trickle down affect as a tidal wave affect.
Bruce had a few other suggestions for putting the ideals of competition back into the sport. I’ll let you be the judge if he needs to be locked up or not.
1. Outlaw all the professional horse people from competing.
2. A worldwide prohibition on sponsorship of competition at all levels.
3. Ban children from competing against adults because it is too humiliating when they win.
4. Every judging panel should have at least one person from Switzerland, Iceland or Denmark because according to a UN survey in 2015, those 3 countries have the happiest people in the world. Therefore, they are ideal candidates to judge if a horse is happy or not in a competition event. And points are awarded for happy horses or removed for unhappy horses.
5. At least one person 100 years or older must be on every judging panel because they can remember what competition use to be like before professionalism – excluding blind and senile 100 year olds. You can cut down on expense by having 100-year-old Swiss or Danes or Icelandic judges - two for the price of one!
6. No horse can compete in a breed class until they have proved successful in a performance class.
7. No horse can compete in a performance class until they proved they can be ridden by a novice rider, can be ridden on a trail, open gates, walk through an obstacle course (including water), stand quietly to be mounted and be ridden politely in company.
I think Bruce had some other conditions, like not being allowed ride with pink or purple saddle blankets and no brown horses are allowed to compete because Bruce thinks brown is a boring colour – but I can’t remember them all.
I sometimes have to ask myself why I’m still mates with Bruce.
This is the only photo I have of Bruce. He wanted to be anonymous. But I bet most of you could spot the bloke in the room with glasses and no head?
Last weekend a horse was brought to the clinic that was about 9 years old and had previously been trained for campdrafting and reining. The owner was an older gentleman who had been seriously hurt in a riding accident and was left with a brain injury. The horse was in training with a local reining trainer, but was brought to the clinic to help get the owner back in the saddle. The reining trainer also attended as a spectator.
During the riding lesson I pointed out how stiff and crooked the horse was through its body and coached the owner on getting the horse to bend to the inside rein and step its hindquarters under during the turns.
About mid-way through the process of encouraging the hindquarters to disengage the trainer interrupted by saying (paraphrasing), “We don’t do that in reining. We want the horse to use his hindquarters and not disengage during a rollback.”
I went onto to explain that I understood the demands of competition meant a horse is not to disengage the hindquarters, but that before a horse becomes a competition horse it should first learn to use its body correctly to develop straightness, balance and strength. This will ensure the horse remains sound through years of competition instead of breaking down in its mid teens because of long-term crookedness and incorrectness. I said that a horse should always learn to carry itself correctly first, before becoming a performance horse. They won’t run out of competitions if you take an extra 6 months or more to train correctness in your horse.
Of course the trainer was dismissive of this.
Over the years I have heard similar arguments from different parts of the horse world. It seems there are doctrines in every aspect of the industry.
Dressage: if you teach a horse to disengage his hindquarters he will never be able to engage them properly.
Dressage: if you teach the rein back too early, you will kill the forward button.
Showjumping: if you teach a horse to walk through water he will never learn to jump clear over a water jump.
Polo: never ride your horse with two reins because he will never learn to neck rein well.
Reining: if you teach a horse to bend in his step-overs he won’t be able to be straight in his spins.
Harness: if you don’t put blinkers on a horse he will always be prone to shying and unsafe.
Showing: if you get your Arab horse use to plastic bags you won’t be able to use them to get him excited for the judge.
Horsemanship: if you teach a horse to turn his hindquarters towards you, you are teaching it to be disrespectful.
The list is much longer, but I hope you get my drift.
In my view all these notions are dumb. They assume horses are dumb. Imagine arguing that if you teach a child to multiply numbers too early in life that they won’t be able to learn long division! Or that if you catch a ball with your right hand you will never be good at catching a ball with your left hand.
I had a discussion with a person a little while back that I mentioned in an earlier post. He said when he starts a horse under saddle he never uses both reins at the same time for at least 2 months. This puzzled me because I use one rein and two reins on the first ride and never seem to have problems later on. When I wrote to the person and asked why, he didn’t have an answer. He seemed to assume that by using 2 reins to direct a young horse, it made using one rein more difficult. This is not my experience, so I wonder what he is doing that creates the problem for him.
It appeared to me that the trainer had made up a golden rule based on something he heard or saw or tried at some point, but never really questioned it.
Horses respond to the input that is presented to them. What they do is a result of what we offer and their learned experience. When a rider applies a leg aid a horse might interpret that as a request to move forward. However, when the leg aid is applied in a slightly different fashion, it might be a signal to a horse to step backwards. And when used in a different way again, a horse might think he is to yield sideways. All those responses are possible and should be available. Just because a horse has learned one way to respond to pressure does not mean he hasn’t got the capacity to learn other ways to yield. It comes down to how clear we are when we present an idea to a horse. Clarity is the key to teaching a horse that he should engage his hindquarters one moment and then disengage them the next.
People love generalizations. I think it’s because they feel it gives them permission not to think for themselves. When I heard a dressage trainer tell a student they can’t do dressage in a western saddle, I knew they did not think for themselves. When a reining trainer told me that disengaging a horse’s hindquarters in a turn would damage the rollbacks, I knew they were not thinking for themselves.
I believe horses are much more capable of achieving than we are capable of inspiring them to achieve.
Wise words from Walt Whitman…