Doctrine In Horsemanship

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…

Being A Teacher vs Being A Horseman

When I was training horses for the public as a full time job, my main focus was on being the best trainer I could and do the best job for the horses and their owners that I could. I spent an inordinate amount of time devoted to studying, thinking about and experimenting with different ways and approaches to be better at my job. Being a student of horsemanship was as much a part of my job as being a teacher of horses.


Now I work as a clinician as my main occupation and I see it as a very different career path from being a trainer. Most clinicians and even instructors fall into their job because of their abilities with horses. People appreciate a person’s way with horses and almost automatically begin clamoring for lessons, in the hope they will learn the secrets that make that person good with horses.


But nowhere, that I am aware, is there a place for aspiring clinicians or instructors to learn to become just as a good a teacher as they are a horse person. I now see my main occupation as a teacher first and a horseman second. My value to a student is no longer about my skill with a horse. It’s in my ability to communicate concepts to people. This is first and foremost what determines if I am a good clinician or not, and my horsemanship is a secondary consideration (albeit still important).


Where do good horse people go to learn to become good teachers? It seems it must come from their own efforts because there is no course or certificate in teacher training for horse people.


That being said, it appears to me that the general public is less interested in a horse clinician’s teaching skills than they are in their prowess with a horse. Some of the biggest names in the clinic world are terrible teachers. Instead of explaining difficult concepts in simple terms that less experienced people can understand, they use trite, mother-earth statements that offer very few people any clear answers and confuse most students. Answering a question about how to use the reins and rider’s legs, with a statement like “… you use them to support the horse”, is often little help to the average clinic goer. But it happens all the time and the starry-eyed paying customer swoons in awe at the brilliance of this observation. We talk all the time about the importance of clarity when teaching the horse; yet don’t criticize the clinician who fails to offer the same support to the student.


Then there are the teachers who don’t know why they teach the things they teach.


I recently asked a clinician why he teaches people not use both reins to halt a horse in the first couple of months of starting them. He got quite cranky and a little belligerent at my question and didn’t have an answer. I think it is an appropriate question to ask why this person charges people money to come to a clinic, when they don’t even understand what they are teaching? If a person doesn’t know why they don’t apply both reins, then should they be telling people not to do it? There maybe a perfectly good reason for why he teaches that principle, but it is concerning that the clinician doesn’t know what it is. All of us teachers should only be teaching what we know, and leave out what we don’t understand.


Then there are the clinicians who believe their time is more valuable then their student’s time.


I’ve been to clinics where people have asked a perfectly legitimate question and are in turn abused and humiliated by the clinician for being so naïve or not paying attention when the subject was discussed earlier in the clinic.


In my view, it’s never ok for anybody to abuse or humiliate another person in public, let alone when somebody who is paying you a lot of money to have his or her questions (dumb or otherwise) answered.


By definition, it’s the job of a clinician (or any teacher) to patiently answer a student’s questions in the best way possible that helps the student. We are always hearing how we should leave our egos outside of the riding arena because they have no place when training horses. Yet, so many clinicians don’t take their own advice when the student is human and not equine.


When deciding on which clinics to attend, I would like to see people do more homework in researching the clinician whose teaching style best fits their learning pattern. I think it is time that people stopped rewarding bad teachers, just because they may be good horse trainers. Choosing to attend clinics based solely on which you think is the better horse person, may leave you financially poorer and no wiser in your horsemanship.


Let the better horse trainers who are second-rate teachers do their stuff at horse expos and demonstrate their skills on YouTube. And let the better teachers be acknowledged for their ability to pass on their skills to students in the clinic setting. In that way, the life of horses will be much better served and improved.


This is a photo of clinicians and trainer who rode the Tom Dorrance benefit in 2001 in Fort Worth.

What Is Wrong With Gadgets?

I want to talk about gadgets. It is a very controversial subject and tends to create extreme views from both the proponents and opponents.


I guess before discussing them; I would be best to define what we are talking about when we talk about gadgets. What is a gadget? I can’t speak for anybody else, but for the purposes of this discussion my idea of a gadget is any device (i) that the human cannot use with feel, and/or (ii) by their design imposes a behaviour on a horse.


This may not be a terribly satisfactory definition and you may be able to think of gadgets that don’t fit into that category or perhaps tools that do fit within the bounds of gadgets, but are not considered gadgets. But each person has his or her own idea of what defines a piece of equipment as a gadget.


The sort of devices that I feel can be described as gadgets are tie downs, noseband, side reins, training hobbles, chambon, pessoa, blinkers, etc because the human can not use them with feel and making adjustments moment to moment in how they are applied it not possible.


Items that I don’t believe fall into the category of a gadget are bits, whips, spurs, side pull, flags, halters, etc. The effectiveness of these devices as communication aids is entirely dependent on the input from the rider or handler.


Both gadgets and non-gadgets are designed to convey an idea to a horse. Nevertheless, when a device works without the need for a rider or handler to present feel through the device, the idea now becomes imposed on a horse. Any time a human cannot constantly adjust the feel that a horse experiences, the device becomes a gadget.


But what is so wrong with using a gadget to communicate an idea to a horse?


In good horsemanship we want our idea to become a horse’s idea. Remember, I’m talking about what the horse is thinking, not what it is doing. If it has the same idea we want it to have, it will do as we hoped because a horse is always trying to do what it is thinking. The most important component of helping a horse to have the same thought as us is to encourage it to search through all of its options.


This means we allow our horse to have choices. If we make the idea we want our horse to have appear like it is the best option, it will dismiss the not-so-good ideas. The important part here is that our horse decides for itself that out of all the available choices the one we wanted it to choose is the best. It dismisses the others as bad idea.


When presenting a horse with an idea we are always competing with alternative thoughts that may appear to a horse. By allowing our horse to explore those alternative ideas, we allow it to reject each of them one by one until it finds the best idea. When it discovers the idea that our horse believes provides safety and comfort, there will be minimum resistance and trouble between us.


This is where gadgets fail us. By their nature gadgets do not allow a horse to freely explore alternative choices. A horse never gets to dismiss a bad idea because it never gets to explore it as an option and decide for itself that it didn’t work out well. Instead, the gadget just imposes the response or behaviour we want and leaves the alternative idea as a potential choice in a horse’s mind.


Let’s look at an example of this. Tongue-plates are used to prevent horses putting their tongue over the bit. A horse that wants to put its tongue over the bit does it for a reason. It is usually searching for safety and/or comfort and putting the tongue on top of the bit is part of its exploration to find the best response. A tongue-plate physically blocks the tongue being place over the bit. However, it does not address the reason why a horse keeps trying to get its tongue over the bit. It just minimizes the behaviour. It never becomes the horse’s own idea to not get its tongue over the bit, so the horse never feels okay about the tongue-plate. It also never entirely dismisses the possibility of one day trying to put its tongue over the bit again. This same principle applies to just about any gadget I can think of.


I sometimes hear that the problem with gadgets is that people don’t know how to use them correctly. When used properly they are a great help to a horse. Often side reins are cited because the Spanish Riding School, one of the esteemed centres of classical riding, invented them. I have been told that if the SRS uses them they must be a good idea. But of course, this is nonsense. The SRS does not own “good ideas” when it comes to training horses. Just because they are good at what they do, does not mean that what they do is good.


The desire of people to solve a problem as easily and quickly as possible is why gadgets have become so popular. They are a short cut means of getting something done. My response to people who say that when a gadget is used correctly they can be a great benefit to a horse, is if you don’t have the knowledge to train a horse without the use of the gadget, then you don’t have the skill to use them “correctly”. The simple answer is that they are just anti good training.


Having said all that, I will admit that I have trained my horses to wearing hobbles. It has always been in preparation to travelling on long distances treks where it has been necessary to allow my horses to graze overnight. Hobbles enabled the horses to move about while grazing, but restricted their roaming while I slept at night. This was so I didn’t spend half of the next day looking for them.


Training horses well is a skill that is learned over a long time. It is not possible to circumvent the process by taking short cuts. The behaviour that gadgets are intended to shape is something that good horse people learn along the way to becoming good horse people. A person cannot learn to be a talent with a horse by resorting to gadgets because they undermine the process of becoming a good horse person.


This is a photo of a tongue-plate.

The Worse Way To Teach A Horse To Tie Up

This is just so dangerous and damaging to a horse


Munchausen By Proxy

Munchausen by proxy (MBPS) was named after Baron von Munchausen, an 18th-century German dignitary known for making up stories about his travels and experiences in order to get attention. It is a mental disorder whereby a parent or caretaker either exaggerates or fabricates a child’s disorder or disease. The caregiver (proxy) gains sympathy and support and often assumes the “hero” role for their caring devotion to the supposed sick child.


While MBPS is a medical term used to describe a condition involving a child, I believe a similar syndrome exists among horse owners by substituting the child with a horse.


I have come across many instances where people insist that their horse suffers from a physical ailment, despite any lack of veterinary or otherwise evidence. Conditions such as brain tumours, cryptorchid, polycystic ovaries, ulcers, back pain and a multitude of leg and hoof conditions, etc are sometimes blamed for a horses poor behaviour and training. It is further complicated when you add in factors like saddle fit problems and bits.


I don’t want anyone to think I don’t believe that any of these (and other) factors don’t play a role in how a horse behaves or problems in training. However, so often people cling to explanations that involve physical issues rather than training issues despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some people blindly adhere to the belief that all the problems they have with a horse is rooted in some physical cause even though circumstantial evidence suggests it is not.


Possibly the most common example of this is bridle lameness. This is where a horse’s gait or movement is flawed when ridden. In a recent clinic I saw the most-clear cut example of bridle lameness I have seen in years. The horse would canter on the front legs and trot on the hind legs. The lady at the clinic allowed me to ride her horse and work through it in a few minutes. Once I was able to relax the horse, the bridle lameness disappeared.


However, many times I have known people to pursue explanations associated with veterinary problems, equipment problems, conformational problems, rider balance problems, etc and in complete denial that the cause stemmed more from mental resistance, emotional worry and a lack of clarity than from a physical base.


Another common scenario is when mares become difficult to handle during the spring. Often owners claim it is due to spring grass or from changing hormone status. Without doubt the extra level of nutrition can give a horse more energy and a mares reproductive cycle can make them more distracted. Yet, in my experience these times only reveal holes in the training that were already there in other times of the year, but small enough as to be very manageable for many people. When spring comes along, those small holes in the training suddenly become bigger and less manageable. There is nothing about spring that makes the mare ill or turns them into Jekyll and Hyde; it is just the same mare as it was in the winter, just more so.


In the equine world, MBPS is exhibited by owners who spend enormous energy trying to find physical causes for training issues. Every minor issue with straightness requires a visit from the chiropractor. Every hint of a horse playing excessively with the bit requires a visit from the dentist or a new bit. Every unevenness of gait or change in the sweat pattern of a saddle pad calls for re-fitting of the saddle or perhaps a new saddle. Every change in behaviour needs to be answered with introducing a new diet.


You might ask why I refer to some horse owners suffering the syndrome Munchausen by proxy, rather than just trying to exclude all the possible physical causes to problems.


The people that suffer MBPS are the ones that can’t accept that there are not always physical explanations to the problems they have with their horse.


I have known people who won’t ride their horse because they can’t find or are waiting to buy the perfect saddle. They believe that if they just had the right saddle, their horse would be brilliant. Yet, when I trained horses they were all started and re-educated in the same saddle irrespective whether it was a good fit or a bad fit. One saddle for all those horses! Heavens above, how did all those horses survive without trying to toss me out of the saddle every day?


I don’t want anyone to think that I am suggesting that we should not consider the role of a horse’s physical well being or equipment or diet, etc in any behaviourial and training problems we have with our horses. However, I do believe that some people only consider those issues even when the evidence does not support the idea.


In the experience we gain, as we become better horse people, one of the skills we develop is to become deductive in our thinking – like a detective. We learn to deduce the cause of problems by rationally eliminating the unlikely candidates and experimenting with the remainder. If we can do that the true culprit that create our training problems can be identified and resolved much quicker.


This is a photo of Baron Von Munchausen