Things I Don't Know How To Do

Years ago a woman came to a clinic with her thoroughbred crossbred gelding. She had owned him for about 5 years and had been battling all those years with teaching him to slow down. He ran manically whenever she asked for anything more than a walk. She held the reins tight like a handbrake through all her rides, but still the horse wanted to run fast.


She told me that if I couldn’t fix her horse, she was going to sell him for one that was quieter and more sensible.


On the second day of the clinic we swapped horses. I rode her horse and she rode one of mine. It only took a few moments to convince her horse to trot and canter without rushing. Meanwhile, she couldn’t get my horse to go. She kicked and kicked, but my mare just ignored her and wandered around like it had nowhere to go that day. I rode the mare and she immediately woke up and was working like she had been taught.


I told the lady I couldn’t fix her horse, but if she was willing I would try to help her horse by fixing her.


One day I got a phone call from a mother asking if I made house calls to assess horses for purchase. She was shopping for a horse to suit her teenage daughter whom she said was ready to graduate from pony club to open competition. She was looking for a horse that would take her daughter all the way to be nationally competitive. The girl had been riding for six years and mum made it sound like she was ready to go to the Olympics if they could only find her the right horse. They had an open cheque book and wanted to find the horse that would make the daughter a success.


I lied and told the lady I didn’t offer a pre-purchase service, but wished her luck.


A fellow asked me to help him with his horse that had begun to buck. The bloke had been thrown a few times and decided being buried in the sand had lost its glamour. If I couldn’t fix the horse, it was going to get a bullet.


When the horse arrived the first thing I did was check its back. It was very reactive to the touch. I then asked to look at his saddle. From the back of his truck he pulled out a medieval torture device that looked a little like an Australian stock saddle in very bad shape. There was no way this saddle could not be hurting the horse. I asked how long he had been riding in the saddle and said he used it on all his horses for the last 20 years. He told me he had owned the bucking horse for 18 months. Then I asked when did the horse start to buck and the answer was about 6 weeks ago.


I told him that the horse deserved a medal and not a bullet. If he had been tolerating that saddle for 18 months and only began to complain 6 weeks ago he was a special horse. I told him I couldn’t fix his horse. But maybe a few weeks rest, plus a good bodywork therapist and a decent saddle maker could.


In all three of these examples, people put the onus of getting along with their horse on the horse. In the first example, paying enough money for a horse was going to guarantee a novice horsewoman became a successful competitor. In the second, training was going to stop the horse from expressing how badly it felt about the rider. And in the third, training was supposed to make the horse ignore its pain.


I don’t know how to make a horse that feels bad, behave well. I don’t know how to make a horse feel okay about bad riding. I don’t know how to make a horse in physical pain, pretend it’s not.


I just don’t know enough to fix everything.

How can I help a horse feel okay about John Wayne's riding?

How Can This Be Called Horsemanship

Just a warning that some people may find the images disturbing. But I believe we should not put our heads in the sand to what goes on in the horse world.


The Hardest Lesson To Learn

While driving in the car this morning I listened to breakfast radio, which is something I rarely do. There was a discussion about a competition run by a charity in Melbourne. The third prize was a flat screen television. Second prize was a weekend in a luxury hotel. The first prize was two days serving in a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. The organizer made the observation that second and third prizes were stuff. But first prize was happiness!


At a clinic this year, a student was circling her horse on the lunge – around and around it orbited. But with each revolution the circle got smaller, the horse flexed tighter to the inside and the hindquarters scooted out further. Eventually the horse stopped, squared up to her and stared as if to say, “Now what do you want?”


This was a pattern the pair had been repeating for months at home and something the owner wanted to stop. It was the reason she came to the clinic.


I talked to her about stepping her feet in the same direction she was asking her horse to circle. I explained that her energy should follow a concentric pattern to her horse’s circle. Up until then, the owner had been walking to her right while the horse circled to the left and then walked to the left when her horse circled to the right. They weren’t going together. The lead rope was the only thing that only connection them. By walking to the left when her horse was circling to the right, she was both drawing the horse’s thoughts to the middle and driving the hindquarters to the outside. This is why the horse continued to stop and face her with a puzzled look. It was doing everything she had asked of him, the woman just didn’t know it.


I coached on her about how to get with her horse when lunging. Despite making a huge effort to get it right, I still had to regularly remind her that she was walking the wrong direction. Every time I mentioned it, she let out a gasp of frustration. She couldn’t believe something so simple was so difficult. She didn’t know how she was going to go home and explain to her husband that she had spent all this money going to a clinic to learn how to walk in a circle.


On the second day, she was doing much better, but I still had to occasionally remind her to get her feet going with her horse and not against him. Finally, in absolute frustration she let out a scream, turned to me and asked in an exasperated tone, “Why is this so hard? This is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn with a horse.”


Because she was getting herself worked up about her dilemma, I decided to stop the work for a few moments and just let her relax in hope that her frustration and anxiety would subside.


I said, “Everybody finds this hard when they begin. At almost every clinic there is at least one person who finds walking a circle really difficult. But I don’t think this is really the hardest thing anybody has to learn.”


“Well, what do you think is?” she asked.


“Well, I guess it all depends on the person. But for me, I think it was learning to let go of my ego. As a young bloke, it was very humbling to realize the world did not exist for me. I use to think horses were put on earth for my pleasure. When it came to horses, nothing was more important than bending them to my will. My skill as a horseman was measured in terms of how much I could get a horse to do. Both my value and self-esteem were wrapped up in how much success I had with horses in the eyes of others.


“It took many years and many hard lessons to learn how stupid I really was. It won’t take you nearly as long or be anywhere near as difficult to learn to walk a circle, as it took me to eat humble pie.”


There are a lot of skills that need to be sharpened and need to come together as a package in order for someone to become a good horseperson. Most of the skills are quite mechanical in nature and are developed by thousands of hours of practice and good guidance from mentors. But those skills are not the hard ones to learn. They just take commitment. They just take practice.


The hard skills to learn are the ones that require an inner change in us. I talk a lot about trying to change the inside of a horse whenever I am working with it. I believe by changing the inside of a horse, I can make their life better and more harmonious whenever people are in the picture.


I discovered that by focusing my aims more towards helping horses feel better on the inside, I also helped them perform better on the outside. However, more importantly, I also found a way to let go of my need to be in control all the time. My ego became less about what I could get a horse to do and more about what I could do for a horse.


I can get horses to do some really cool stuff. I have honed my skills to the point that I can impress a lot of people with what I can get a horse to do. But like the flat screen TV and the stay in a luxury hotel, that’s just stuff. That is second and third prize.


For me, first prize is what I can help a horse to feel. Nothing feels better to me than helping a troubled horse feel less troubled. It is the coolest thing.


I have learned that happiness comes from relationships. And I have learned from the people I love and from horses that have passed through my life, that the best relationships are the ones where I want to give as much (or even more) than I take. It too is the coolest feeling.


The woman at the clinic finally did get her feet organized to walk in a circle. But I am still really curious how she explained what she did at the clinic to her husband.

Feel, Timing And Balance

You might want to look at this. I actually don't completely agree with this this definition of feel, timing and balance. I know the fellow pinched the idea from a video that I have put up before of Tom Dorrance discussing the concepts. But see what you think.


My Experience At Equitana

Yesterday was Friday and I spent the entire day at Equitana in Melbourne. During the day I watched several demonstrations, parts of different competitions and listened to a couple of lectures. In between, I browsed row after row of merchandise stands. It was mind-numbing how much stuff was for sale.


At the end of the day I had a lot to think about. I can’t say I came away overwhelmed by the quality of horsemanship. But I had a lot to think about with regard to what it was that I saw and why did I feel bothered by it.


This is some of what I have concluded.


I watched three different demonstrations by people who have achieved international fame in their area of expertise. Each person demonstrated working with a horse in a training situation. I should say at the start that all of the trainers have far more credentials than I do. All of them have fame and fortune that vastly exceeds mine. Each of them has received accolades and made achievements that I never will. So you can take my views as you find them with that information in mind.


Each person had 45 minutes to display their approach and get their point across. All three trainers emphasized the importance of having a horse relaxed in the training. It was a message they all seemed to feel was important.


Yet, none of them actually approached the sessions as if relaxation was important. Two out of the three horses grew steadily more tense during the 45 minutes and the third was about the same as it was at the beginning (which was very anxious).


One horse was dripping foam from the mouth by about halfway through the session. Two out of the three horses were sweating profusely around the flanks from almost the beginning. All three horses were over bent and working behind the vertical. All three horses had busy mouths and constantly played with the bit. All three horses were amazingly obedient and polite.


It seemed to me that each of them don’t believe what they say. It’s hard to believe that they believe that a horse’s emotions really are important in the training process because they all ignored it when the talk switched to the work. As soon as the work began, the emotions never got mentioned again. It suddenly became all about obedience to the aids and making the horse’s feet do what was being asked.


We all strike trouble when working with horses from time to time. Not every session goes according to plan. Given the environment of an event like Equitana, it is not a huge surprise that a horse might struggle badly to relax its mind and be calmer. However, none of the trainers ever talked about working towards relaxing the horses. Each trainer only emphasized control and obedience – nothing relating to how their work was attempting to relax the horses – only how they were trying to make the horses perform. Despite the rhetoric at the beginning of the sessions, when it came to actually working with the horses, the animal’s emotions were forgotten.


Two of the three trainers did emphasize, that by controlling the feet, a horse would relax. I don’t believe that is true, however even so it didn’t happen during any of the demonstrations. None of the horses became more relaxed and calmer and two of them got worse. You’d think that if they really believed emotions were important, yet the horses did not become more relaxed and emotionally calmer, that a person would think about a trying a different approach. Yet they all pushed on getting the horses more obedient in what they did, and ignored the ever-growing tension in the horses.


One of the trainers mentioned that they warm up their horse for 20 minutes at the start of every session to get it to relax before starting the proper work.


It made me wonder what is that trainer doing to the horse that required 20mins of work to relax it? Why is the horse not relaxed from the moment it is haltered and saddled? Why does the horse feel the need to be worried and tense at doing something like being ridden in the arena, when it has done it thousands of times before? Does this trainer really understand the concept of relaxing a horse in the work? They talk about it when they teach, but do they really get it?


I came away from Equitana wondering if I am crazy and really missing some fundamentals of horse training or do these trainers just not understand horses and how they operate at their best as deeply as they would have us believe?


I have been asked before why don’t I approach organizers of events like Equitana about becoming a presenter. It’s a matter of putting up or shutting up, I guess. One of the main reasons why I won’t do that is because watching me work would be like watching paint dry. A horse offering a relaxed forward trot excites me. However, yesterday one of the trainers was harassing the student that her horse’s trot did not have enough pizzazz. I understand the trainer was trying to prepare the horse for competition, but it just goes to show that relaxation is not something that interests trainers, spectators or event organizers. It’s boring, even if it fulfills the ideals people espouse. Events like Equitana want “wow” factor and I am not interested in “wow” factor.


I feel a little disheartened. I feel sad for the horses (they are the victims in all this). I feel sad for the students who try to emulate the trainers (after all, if trainers with such impressive reputations don’t get it, what is a student to do?).


Nobody knows who is right and who is wrong. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. It is up to the horses to tell us.


But if the horses I saw yesterday are to be believed, I am personally convinced that the approach of controlling the feet to influence the emotions is back to front. I came away even more convinced that emotions influence everything and there is no higher priority than first changing a horse emotions for the better. Only in that way can we begin directing the feet with as little resistance as possible.


I have said it before, just because a person is good at what they do, does not mean that what they do is good.


I took this photo at one of the demonstrations.