Favourite Horse

I can’t believe how privileged I have been with the horses in my life. That’s not to say that I’ve been responsible for a great number of horses because despite starting from an early age. None were mine to take care of until I was in my early 20s. Up until that time, all the horses I rode and worked were other peoples.


The first horse that came home to me was an unbroken 3 yo Percheron x Arab gelding. I noticed in the newspaper that an auction was being held for horses that were being sold because of the terrible drought in New South Wales. About 100 horses were trucked from NSW to Victoria to be sold. It caught my eye that there were a few Percheron crosses among the horses for auction.


A friend at the time talked me into going along. But I was determined not to buy a horse. Afterall, I was studying at the time for my PhD and when was I going to have the time for a horse? My friend and I walked the stalls looking at the poor devils – so much starved misery. A big steel grey gelding caught my eye. He was called Sebastian and looked like a holocaust survivor. I checked him over and despite his condition he had good bone, good feet, a nice short back and fire in his belly.


During the auction I sat on my hands as the horses were paraded before us. A young girl led in Sebastian. He spent most of the time on his back legs and there were no bids for him. At the end of the auction, My friend prodded me to ask the owner how much for the grey bag of bones. I finally succumbed and negotiated to buy Sebastian for $25. The horse was delivered the next day and was instantly renamed Luke.


So began a love affair that lasted until Luke’s death a few years ago. From a wild 3yo to an amazing six bar horse and a long time companion on my many long distance treks. Luke was always there.


I have been asked from time to time if Luke was my favourite horse or if Satts (from the series The Story Of Satan posted last year on this page) was my favourite. My usual answer is that my favourite horse is the one I’m sitting on at the time. But in truth there has been ‘a favourite’ and I can’t imagine it will ever change. I feel a little guilty about having a favourite – a bit like a parent admitting they have a favourite child.


About 3 years after Luke came to me, I got a phone call from some acquaintances who owned a Percheron stud. We were in the sixth year of what was to be an 8-year drought. They had too many horses and needed to find some short-term homes for the mares. The deal was that if I took a mare with a foal at foot for a year I could have my choice of either the foal at foot or the foal she was carrying. I agreed.


China was 3 months old when he and his dam came to live with Luke and I. He was gangly and clumsy and bordered on being goofy. But he had the curiosity of a puppy and the brave heart of a warrior. Nothing scared or intimidated him. If he needed to know what was in another paddock and a fence was blocking his way, he would quietly walk up to the fence and gently pop over it. If a mob of kangaroos bounded through his paddock he would follow them to see where they were going, leaving mum behind.


Luke was bossier, but China was smarter. China would get a good idea and let Luke take the credit. They became great mates and even though Luke was the leader, in reality he relied on China much more than China depended on him.


China enjoyed hanging around Luke and I. Each month I’d  ride Luke the 15km into town for the show jumping club rally. China would follow behind of his own free will and wait patiently in a yard until the day was over and it was time to ride home again. When I rode Luke to another town for a show, China would follow and spend the 2 or 3 weeks on the road and living in the bush with us. We were like a family on a road trip. Each day was an adventure, a challenge. I had no idea at the time of the bond that was growing between our family of three.


By the time China was a bit over 3 years old he had grown to 17hh and solid like a mountain. He was ready to start under saddle. A lot of people made jokes about him. He was not pretty by anyone’s standards and looked more like a giant oaf from a children’s fairytale. You almost expected to hear him say “fe fi fo fum”. People would ask what was I going to do with a carthorse when I didn’t own a cart?


There was nothing China could not do. He jumped 1.75m heights. He could perform Prix St George movements. He could run barrels, pull sleds, negotiate bushfires with calm, move cows, goats and sheep, swim flooded rivers. As horses go, he was a horses horse. He was my eyes when I was blind, my legs when I couldn’t walk and my saviour when I was surrounded by a bushfire.


Every horse that has come home with me has been amazing. There is not one that I am not thrilled to have shared my life with. All my horses have been important. All of them have taught me to be a better horse person and a better person. I have loved and been committed to all of them. But China was even more special. Not because of his bravery or loyalty or the things he did for me. He was special because his personality made me bond to him like no other. He could make me laugh in my saddest moments and hear my troubles when there was nobody else to listen. And he knew how to make me cry when he passed away.


It was like a love affair. He made me feel better than I was.


The name China came from the term China plate, which is rhyming slang for mate. He was my best mate. In the photo China is about 1 year old. You can see the devastation that an 8-year drought can cause.

What Was It That Killed The Cat?

Some of you might remember a study from mid 2012 that was designed to refute the theory behind Join Up that Monty Roberts has trademarked. It was performed by a postgraduate student under the supervision of Prof Paul McGreevey and received a lot of publicity. The study was very poorly designed and widely criticized by both the academic and wider horse community. You can read an brief summary here: http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=9617


I have previously written about the problems associated with the study and don’t want to rehash that again. However, I’d like to point out a facet of the study that failed to receive any attention, but which demonstrated a very important feature of the nature of horses that deserves consideration.


The study attempted to mimics Roberts’ method of join up in a round yard by using a remote controlled car to zoom around the yard in a random pattern. At first the horse was frightened of the car and ran frantically to escape it. But as the study proceeded fear gave way to curiosity. Eventually the horse began to follow the car rather than run from it.


I think the fact that both critics and supporters of the study focused on what it meant in terms of Roberts’ theories about horse training that the importance of a horse’s ability to turn fear into curiosity was overlooked.


Anybody who has watched foals and young horses knows that most have a natural curiosity about new things in the environment. Even when they are wary and lack certainty about something new, they will continue to approach it with caution.


I suspect that curiosity is a strategy that horses use to gain an understanding of their world. It’s a way for them to explore the things they don’t understand and determine whether they should feel fear or interest or apathy. Horses need to understand their world and as their fear of the new and the unknown diminishes, it is replaced with curiosity. Fear falls away and tips the scales in favour of curiosity. It’s something that horses have in common with many species with a complex brain. It’s part of the process of learning to cope in the world.


We have all seen horses sniffing something hanging on a fence. I’ve seen horses explore the smells of a new saddle just to be sure it was what it looked like. I once saw a horse sniff at a rag draped over a rail. Their curiosity was so strong that they grabbed it in their mouth and when it moved it scared them so much they ran around the yard with the rag clenched in their mouth. The bucking only stopped when the rag finally dropped out of their mouth.


Horses will check out dogs, cats, goats, crying babies and most anything you can think of, if their fear level is lower than their curiosity level.


The question that comes to mind for me is how can we use a horse’s natural curiosity to our advantage during training? How can we use it in a way that helps us and makes a horse’s life easier?


A few years ago a woman brought a troubled mare to a 5-day clinic. The first day of these clinics usually entailed each participant working his or her horse in the round yard so we could assess each horse and owner and get an idea on how to proceed on the other 4 days.


The horse was loose in the yard and ran frantically. The owner tried to get the mare’s attention, but the horse’s mind was locked shut and nothing was getting inside. I swapped places with the owner. I carried a halter and lead rope in my hand as the mare continued to blast around the yard.


I totally ignored the mare and began by marching around the yard in a random fashion. I would stride across the yard, turn and march in a different direction. Sometimes I strode along the outside track, sometime I marched diagonally across the yard. I took no notice of the mare or where she was or the direction she was running. Sometimes she was in front of me and sometimes I was in front of her. But I pretended she was not even in the yard with me and just kept my random movement. Sometimes I would throw the lead rope high in the air and catch it again as I marched around the yard. In some ways I was not unlike the remote car in the Sydney University study.


At first, my craziness added more worry and desperation to the mare’s craziness. She was convinced I was the grim reaper and she was next on my list. However, after a couple of minutes her running slowed and even stopped for a moment to watch me. If I came too close to her again, she would run some more. But gradually, she spent more time watching me and trying to anticipate my movement. It took about 5 minutes before she started to tentatively follow me around the yard as I continued to march and throw the lead rope in the air. After I stopped and allowed her to sniff the lead rope and me, she softened and relaxed to the point that she was ready to listen and go to work.


The thing that I think made the difference was that when I was busy and unpredictable, it forced the mare to keep her focus on me. Once she understood that my actions were not life threatening her curiosity kicked in because she needed to understand what I was about. This opened her mind to the degree that I could begin to work with her.


This is just one example where I was able to use a horse’s curiosity to my advantage. On other occasions curiosity has helped overcome trailer-loading problems, water crossing issues, teach tricks and conquer fear of kangaroos – just to name a few examples. I’m sure you can think of examples where it has helped with your horses.


Inspiring curiosity in a horse has the potential to be a powerful tool. But it is also possible to kill curiosity in a horse, where they become zombie-like in their work. When this happens a horse loses something important that is the essence of being a horse. We should never feel okay about our work or ourselves when we damage the innate nature of what it is to be a horse.

Dressage Horse Or Rodeo Horse?

I think the rider could have handled this situation much better.



Working From A Saddle Horse

One of my favourite things to do when I was training horses full time for a living was to work a horse while riding another horse. There are five reasons that make it one of my favourite ways for working.


1. It gives my saddle horse a job.

2. It gives me an excuse to ride my own horse.

3. It helps the client’s horse become well-mannered and quiet when working in close proximity of another horse.

4. There is less physical exertion and strain on my body (which is something only the older horse people can appreciate).

5. It is fun.


For me, the last reason is the most important.


I thoroughly recommend people teach their horse’s to be good saddle horses for working with other horses.  One of the most important reasons for this is that it is one of the few jobs we ask of a horse where I see a saddle horse take a strong interest. Most of what we ask of our horses offers them little interest. How many times can a horse find the fun in yet another circle? But the focus a saddle horse can have when working another horse can only come from the willingness that is inside a horse. I see the same thing in horses that enjoy working cows or chasing polo balls. However, it is rarely seen in the dressage arena or running barrels or performing reining patterns or on a trail ride. So working other horses can be fun for both the rider and the saddle horse.


With the very best of saddle horses, the rider and the horse’s brain become one and the horse’s legs become the human’s legs. It’s like being a centaur (a Greek mythical creature with the head, arms, and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse). As the rider’s thinks the horse’s feet are responding.


However, it takes time and training to achieve that level of oneness.


It begins by teaching both the horse and rider the art of one-handed riding. For most people’s purposes this means teaching them how to neck rein. In neck reining the outside rein applies a feel to the outside of the neck, which causes the horse to bend to the inside and follow a balanced turn to the inside. For example, a turn to the left would come about by taking the reins (held in one hand) to the left. When the right rein is felt against the right side of the neck, the horse flexes to the left and turns to the left.


Once this is mastered, it’s time to teach a horse to move laterally off the rider’s leg. It’s important that the horse can move off the leg both with inside bend and outside bend in order to maintain subtle control. Sometimes this will mean moving only the hindquarters or only the forehand or both at the same time.


You want to teach a saddle horse the art of finesse. Many times it will be required to move just one foot and stop. It could be a hind foot or a front foot or both. It could be required to move at glacial speed or so fast that glass will shatter from the sonic boom. All this should be available with little effort from the rider.


In my experience, saddle horses are ruined because of two factors. Either a horse has insufficient confidence to work with other horses OR too much confidence and eagerness to apply pressure to a young horse. Both are problems relating to their preparation.


I have ruined a young horse of mine by introducing it to a strong willed horse too early. After that, it was only good for working quieter horses.


I’ve learned that the best way to introducing a horse to working other horses is to first have the essential elements of focus, clarity and softness well ingrained in the basics of stop, go, turn, laterals and snappiness. When that’s achieved, its time to start working with other horses.


I have found it works well to just begin with leading or ponying a quiet horse from my saddle horse. It can help if the two horses already know each other and get along. Begin by leading from your saddle horse on the left and right sides. Make lots of turns both into the led horse and away from it. Try and get the stops and forward transitions smooth.


This is the time to correct those moments where your saddle horse starts down the wrong path. By this I mean if he stops listening to you and starts try to direct the other horse ahead of you or shows aggression to the other horse, nip it in the bud now. Forget about the horse on the end of the lead rope and give priority to educating your saddle horse. Do not let it take over.


On the other hand, if your saddle horse shows anxiety and fear you could maybe start simpler. Teach it that when it approaches the horse, the other horse moves away. You might have to use a whip or flag or wave of your hand to move the leading horse, but if it moves when you ride towards it, your saddle horse will slowly gain confidence. You can also do this at liberty with no lead rope on the other horse. In that way, you can adjust a greater distance between the two horses to where your saddle horse feels safe.


As your horse gains confidence or begins to listen more to the rider, you can then teach it to push into the lead horse. Again, in the early stages make sure you use a quiet lead horse that won’t kick or attack your saddle horse. Teach your saddle horse that it can walk into the other horse and even bump it without getting into trouble or being attacked.


Over time, you improve both your saddle horse’s confidence and focus to be able to ask it to do most anything with a horse in training that you would do from the ground standing on your own two feet. The saddle horse’s legs become your legs.


It’s a fantastic feeling to be thinking that you had better get in position to ask the training horse to do something and realize that as you are thinking it the horse under you is already preparing to do it. I’ve had occasions when a horse stubbornly refused to move when I was on the ground and then rode my saddle horse to make the job almost effortless. I remember a young horse that had the habit of bolting off on the lead rope and couldn’t be held by a human. My saddle horse saved the day and made it possible to get a dramatic change in that horse’s thinking. Another horse was desperately afraid when other horses rode near. Within a short time I had the horse cantering beside my saddle horse shoulder to shoulder.


Not all horses are suited to be saddle horses. Some are too aggressive and some are too timid. I have found temperament is a better determinant of what makes a good saddle horse than size or breed. I’ve worked 17hh horses from a 14hh pony. I’ve seen Michèle’s 14.2hh QH mare humble a 16.3hh Clydesdale with attitude.


But even if you own a horse that does not have the right stuff for working aggressive, tough-minded horses, there is a still a lot of education and fun to be had by teaching them to be working the quieter horses.

Horse In A Bubble

This bothers me. What do you think?