If Horses Could Suicide?

I have a question for everybody. It stems from something I thought about several years ago and was re-ignited by a recent round table discussion at a Harry Whitney clinic in Tennessee that I audited.


The question is: What would horsemanship around the world be like if horses evolved the capacity to commit suicide when life turned bad for them?


I realize it is a silly question and even a terribly depressing one and the thought of it is enough to create a dark cloud over a person’s joy of their horses. But I think it is a question worthy of some consideration.


For one, I imagine there would be no horse racing and perhaps no competition because there may not be enough horses to make holding such events worthwhile. Or perhaps judges would give the higher points to horses that were emotionally relaxed and comfortable, instead of giving priority to flashy movement.


What would it mean for people who love horses as to how seriously they took the quality of their relationship with their animals? How would their priorities change with regard to their horse goals? Would we see a huge migration of people out of the horse industry or perhaps an even bigger influx of new people who have been turned away by some of the more common, but less attractive practices of horse training? Would we criminally prosecute people whose horses killed themselves under animal cruelty laws?


But of course, maybe things we stay exactly the same except we would make it hard for horses to kill themselves. Paddocks would not have dams or ponds deep enough to drown in. Trail riders would avoid riding by roads where a horse could dash out in front of speeding traffic.


What do you think it would mean for the horse industry if horses had the capacity to commit suicide?

The Evolution Of Modern Horsemanship

A few years ago I heard Ray Hunt say at a clinic that he was still working on understanding and training horses to be a better horseman and suggested that maybe some of the people at the clinic would get it before he did. That’s not a precise quote, but the message is the same.


I’m going to talk about the evolution of horsemanship in the past 200 years. It won’t be comprehensive or complete, but I have a point to make so please be patient.


John Rarey (1827-1866) from Ohio, USA became one of the best-known “horse whisperers” in modern folklore. He was the perhaps the first trainer that I heard about that had taken the “backyard” craft of training horses into the wider public arena and it became showmanship to both amuse and educate the public.


A little later, Jesse Beery (1861-1945) also from Ohio, USA took what Rarey had done and refined both his horsemanship and his marketing to start the first widely accepted training system that could be learned by correspondence – something that many trainers are doing today with the help of the internet. He even gave himself the honorary title of Professor JS Beery. Beery was famous throughout the world and took his horsemanship across North America and Europe. He was doing pretty much the same thing as Rarey, but he had tweaked and refined many of the methods Rarey has used.


To jump ahead a lot, the world then discovered Tom Dorrance (1910-2003) from Oregon, USA. It is almost by accident that everybody in the horse world knows the name Tom Dorrance because it was thanks to Ray Hunt and his marketing/PR machine that Tom was ever heard about outside of the immediate vicinity of where he lived in America. Many of Tom’s techniques are derived from Rarey and Beery, but Tom added something that these other trainers didn’t. Tom added an understanding that a horse’s emotions determine its thoughts and the thoughts determine its behaviour. Up until this point, most training (I’m sure there were exceptions) entailed forcing submission and obedience on a horse through repetition and equipment. Tom approached it somewhat differently and had great success working with those horses that would not succumb to the old methods.


This brought him to the attention of the horseman he worked with on ranches but no further, until finally, he met Ray Hunt (1929-2009, Idaho, USA). This was pivotal to what was to come. Their meeting changed the entire world of modern horsemanship. Ray met Tom at just the right time because Ray was soon to become one of the most successful and influential names in the business. It was the beginning of the era of the horsemanship clinician.


Ray Hunt learned a lot about the inside of the horse from Tom Dorrance, but what he did with that was very different. While Tom’s work focused on the horse and the training, Ray modified it more specifically for the working ranch horse. Ray’s background was working on cattle ranches (as was Tom’s) so Ray figured out a way to apply the principles that he learned from Tom to the skills he needed in a ranch horse. This took Ray in a very different direction to Tom.


Ray started teaching clinics with 30 plus people at one time in the arena. He began teaching 3 and 4-day horse starting clinics with 15 or more horses in the round yard at one time. Ray turned teaching and horse training into a mass production system. And he made a lot of money doing it as well as obtaining a lot of fame and influence. He brought Tom’s principles to the masses by taking them into an almost opposite direction. It still amuses me that people talk about Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt in the same sentence as if they were almost the same person when in fact they were very different horsemen.


The outcome of Ray’s success has been that the world is full of Ray Hunt disciples and mimics. But in my view, most are still stuck in the 1980s when Ray was at his peak. The principles and practices that Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance were teaching were excellent, but there has been little advance since the 1980s. It’s largely the same stuff over and over again despite advancements in our understanding of horse behaviour, biomechanics, equine medicine, nutrition etc.


Fortunately, there have been a small number of horse people that have taken what Tom and Ray had to teach and moved beyond copycat repetition. Most easily that comes to my mind is Harry Whitney. Much of Harry’s work stems from Tom and Ray, but Harry has developed a deeper understanding and become a better horseman than Ray Hunt was at his peak. I believe this is because unlike Ray, Harry has not focused on producing working ranch horses like Ray did. Instead, like Tom, Harry has focused on the horse itself and not on the job. This has allowed him the freedom to come at horse training from different angles and more importantly from different fields of expertise. He has avoided the limitations that training for a job placed on the ability of Ray and many that have followed him, to innovate. Because Harry was not focused on teaching a specific job is offered an opportunity to add an intellectual view on how horses operate and training influences the behaviour. Furthermore, Harry developed good teaching skills – something that Ray appeared to have almost zero ability or interest in doing.


Both Harry and I and many of the Ray Hunt students are now in the “old farts” category of horse trainers. So I sometimes wonder if there is a new generation of innovators on the horizon or are we all just teaching people to be copies of us? I mean innovation and advancement came about from people standing on the shoulders of those that came before them. Horse people like myself can trace their influences much further back than Rarey. We may not have actually worked together, but we have all been influenced by the previous generation of trainers either by osmosis or third party filtering of knowledge. So where to from here?


I am super happy to report that I see a few horse people in the newer generation who I believe are capable of taking the principles and practices of the present generation and making them even better. I can think of young trainers I know at home and in the USA that are smart, thinking, curious, talented and hungry for more. I want them to be better than the present generation of teachers. I want to go to their clinics one day and discover something about horses and training that I never thought about before. I hope desperately for future generations of horses and horse people that what we have now is not as good as it is ever going to be.


When the young trainers have joined the “old farts” club I hope they will look at the next generation and see young trainers who are capable of taking their ideas to higher heights.


If we all stand on the shoulders of the teachers that came before us then it is our responsibility to reach higher than they did. I really want to believe that the best horse trainers the world will ever know have not been born yet.


Photo: John Rarey (1827-1866)

Home From the Horse Breaker

In a recent discussion, the topic came up of taking a horse home from a trainer’s care after it has been started under saddle. Most of the time people are concerned with the question of should they spell their young horse or should they continue the work without a break. After that, the next question they have is either what type of work should their horse get or how much work is okay for a young horse?


Like most professional trainers who have been in the business for awhile, I have started too many horses to keep track of but a significant number of those horses have gone home and been rested for weeks or months and then sent back to me to be restarted without the owner doing much at all between visits. I think it is largely because either the owner does not have the confidence to ride their green-broke horse at home or they don’t know what type of work they should do or thy fail to make time to work their horse. So here are my tips for what should happen when a horse goes home from the breaker.


I believe that when a horse finally comes home the owner should put enough rides on their horse for them to figure out and gain confidence in their new relationship. I think it is a mistake for a horse to be immediately spelled after being at a trainer. Owners need to know what they brought home and have confidence that they have a horse they can feel safe riding and they are satisfied with the job they paid for. I usually recommend 20 to 30 rides is enough to give an owner a good gauge of their horse and how they feel before deciding to spell their baby. But the actual number depends on the horse – some may be great with less than 20 rides and some may need significantly more than 30.


I also recommend the rides are not long and definitely not hard work. Short rides that involve mental connection and consolidating the clarity of the reins and rider’s legs rather than physical exertion are far more valuable. I am not from the fraternity that believes a sweaty saddle blanket is the way to go for a young horse.


Once an owner feels confident in the horse they brought home, I am all for spelling a young horse for a few weeks. In fact, I like to spell horses regularly until they reach about 5 to 6 years of age.


However, many people don’t take my suggestion for getting 20 to 30 rides before resting their horse. I believe this is either they are not confident they have a safe horse or life gets too busy and working the horse takes second priority.


If it’s a matter of not enough time to ride your green-broke horse, then I suggest you put off sending your horse to a trainer until you can be sure you will have time to ride when the horse comes home. It may mean planning several months ahead or even a year ahead, but it is worth doing.


If the problem is a lack of confidence, then I believe the best way around it is two-fold. First, make sure you get plenty of experience handling and riding your horse while it is at the trainer before taking it home. When I was training full time I use to insist owners came along as often as possible to watch my sessions with their horse to observe and ask questions. As the horse’s education started to progress, I would have the owners do ground work under my guidance for a few sessions. When the horse was in a good enough frame for the owner to ride, I would give them lessons in the round yard, arena and on the trail (with and without a companion horse). It was my view that a horse should not go home UNTIL the owner and I both felt that things were working well enough between them that it was time to take it home.


The second part of helping owners with a lack of confidence was for me to visit them or have them come to me for semi-regular lessons. This seemed to help a lot of people because it meant I could keep them on track with the education, but also knowing we were going to have a lesson would encourage people to actually ride their horse.


These simple tips helped keep more people motivated to work with their young horse once I had finished my part of the training. It wasn’t a certain guarantee, but I saw a significant improvement in the success rate months later when an owner became involvement in the training process and later take up my offer of follow-up lessons.


My suggestion to anybody looking for a trainer to start their horse under saddle is to search for someone who has good communication skills and wants to get owners involved in the training AND offers after training service as you and your horse get to know each other.


It is a big change in a horse’s life to transition from purely a lawn mower to a riding horse. It alters the dynamic of the relationship we have with our horses that sometimes requires a little help and commitment to putting in the time.

Round Pen Training Tips

This video discusses some aspects of working a horse in a round pen that I believe are worth considering.

Round pens are primarily for building a relationship with a horse and developing focus and confidence, and it is the intention of this video to demonstrate some of the factors that make that possible.

I want to thank Melissa Hansen for allowing me to record her session. Silvie is a 12 year old mare that is very troubled due to too much pressure, too early in her life. She believes people are a bad deal. On the first day of the clinic she was very difficult to handle and constantly looking to escape. It seems hard to believe it is the same horse in the video. I believe that the approach shown in the video will make a huge difference to changing Silvie's view of working with people and make her life much happier.


My First Tolt

I just finished a clinic in Colfax, California.

Lee brought along her wonderful Icelandic pony, Katina. I rode Katina to help Lee understand how she could encourage Katina to elevate her forehand and maintain better balance. But I didn't want to end the ride without exploiting my first opportunity to feel what a tolt was like (Icelandic gait). So Lee returned the favour by instructing me how to help Katina perform the tolt. It was so much fun. Thanks Lee. Thanks Katina. And thanks Lara for videoing.

I told Michèle I want one of these for Christmas!