Stallions Get A Bum Rap

In general, stallions get a bum rap.

 

A lot of people view stallions as some sort of aberration of what a normal horse is. Many consider them to be dangerous or at least difficult to manage. They think a person needs special skills to ride and handle them. There is a wide view that stallions require isolation and stallion-proof yards or paddocks. A lot of bad behaviour by stallions is automatically attributed to their surging testosterone. In short, many people treat stallions as something very different from normal horses.

 

My experience is that stallions are just like any horse. There are quiet ones and rambunctious ones. There are dull ones and sensitive ones. There are strong-minded ones and very compliant ones. And like most horses, stallions are as much as a product of their handling and training as they are of their gonadal status.

 

Stallions differ from geldings in two ways. Obviously they have a drive to serve receptive mares. The urge to reproduce can be an overwhelming impulse for a stallion if the training is lacking. It is generally the lack of good training that causes stallions to behave roguishly during mating season and a large part of the reason for their bad reputation by people with little experience with stallions.

 

The second way that they differ from geldings is less clear-cut. Stallions have a strong impulse to maintain order in a herd. They see themselves as overlords of the herd whose function is to keep the social order functioning as they see fit. This means keeping the harem of mares as a cohesive social group and the other males (intact and castrated) as subordinate and no threat to their status. This is mostly seen during mating season and occasionally when there is turmoil in the herd through introduction of a new horse or movement to another location or something other disturbance to the normal tranquility of herd life. But outside of mating season, stallions are usually peace-loving individuals with a minimalistic approach to keeping order in the herd.

 

Having said that stallions view themselves as herd overlords, I also have come across several geldings that behave in exactly the same way. In fact, we have one living with us. LJ (who was gelded as a foal) will round up the mares and put them into a corner of the paddock for hours and sometimes days at a time. Any mare that escapes from the corner is immediately chased and rundown until it re-joins the harem. Likewise, any gelding that gets too close is chased off to a suitable distance. LJ does this about once a year on average. The rest of the time harmony reigns in the paddock where the geldings and mares happily live together. So I believe this behaviour can be as much a consequence of a horse’s temperament than its specific hormonal status.

 

I realize that stallions are essential to maintaining the species, but I really wouldn’t wish any horse to be kept as a stallion. This is because the way we treat many stallions is really quite abusive, in my view.

 

We ostracize them from other horses by isolating them in yards or paddocks. In an attempt to keep our stallions safe, protect the other horses and prevent unwanted matings, we make the life of a stallion hell. We all know that horses require a herd to feel safe and this is even truer for a stallion. Yet, we so often put stallions in solitary confinement for being what we want them to be.

 

Many years ago I worked with a 5-year-old Andalusian stallion that had been stabled for 3 years with no contact with other horses and no exercise other than 1hr a day of freedom in a yard. He had been so crazy by the way people managed him that he had hurt 3 of his handlers. People said he was crazy and should have been destroyed. But it was people who made him crazy by their idea of how a stallion should be handled. I’m glad to say that he eventually became a safe riding horse.

 

We treat them like a biohazard. Show societies and governing bodies make rules that stallions can only be led with special bits or chains and need to be kept away from other horses. Any infraction by a stallion immediately labels the horse as dangerous in a way that would never happen if it were a gelding or mare.

 

I am not advocating that stallions not be given special consideration when it comes to handling and housing. But I do believe horses should be judged as individuals and not labeled according to reproductive potential.

 

I have worked with several stallions that were wonderful to ride and handle and lived happily in a mixed herd of horses. Yet, I have worked with a gelding or two that were far more dangerous to both people and other horses than any stallion I have encountered.

 

I guess my point is that we should seriously consider the way we view the handling of stallions. So many stallions live lives that are horrible and cruel simply because they are intact males and represent a significant financial investment to their owners. Can this be justified from a welfare point of view?

 

I would never subject a horse to the kind of life many stallions suffer. These animals are often the victims of people’s self-interest simply because they own a horse that looks pretty, has good conformation, been successful in performance or whose parents and grandparents came from the right side of the tracks.

 

If we are going to own a stallion than I believe the onus is on us to learn to give it the best education possible so it can live in as normal a setting as possible and get along with people and horses with a minimum of fuss. If we owe this much to a gelding or mare, we certainly owe it to a stallion.

 

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna only use stallions for their performances. These horses are trained well enough that being stallions does not seem to cause any special problems.

Things To Know Before Participating In A Clinic

Since giving up a busy training business to teach horsemanship full time over the last four years, I have made some interesting observations about the nature of being a clinic participant.

 

Here are a few things I think people should consider before participating in a clinic that I hope might improve their experience and the value they get from attending a horsemanship clinic.

 

People participate in clinics for various reasons and motivations. They all want something from a clinic setting that they feel they can’t get at home or with their regular instructor. There is a certain degree of hope that the clinic will boost and/or accelerate their skill and understanding of their horses and horsemanship.

 

I believe it is a mistake for somebody to participate in a clinic with the belief they will get their horse problems fixed. That’s not what clinics are for. Attending a clinic is not like going to a doctor for a cure to what ails you. Rather a clinic is more like going to a library to get the information you need to cure yourself.  It’s where the understanding begins to solve the problems you might have with a horse (or a horse might have with you). The work of applying the ideas gained at a clinic happens at home. Things might change a little at a clinic, but the important changes happen at home if the knowledge gained is applied. Without the commitment to apply the lessons learned at a clinic when you get home, nothing will change.

 

With this in mind, it is always a good idea to go to a clinic with a fair idea of the areas you want to focus on improving. Knowing what you want to work on gives the clinician a clear idea of how they can best help you in your horsemanship. Of course, this can only happen when the clinician is able to give people sufficient individual attention. I’m really talking about clinics which cater to quite a lot of one-on-one time with the clinician. A group format makes it almost impossible for a clinician to properly address individual issues for each participant and many people go home with little more knowledge that addresses their specific problems than they arrived with.

 

Yet even when a clinician is able to cater to a rider’s specific needs, there is often frustration on the part of the participant. I hear all the time the anguish of people who watch me work with their horse and then try to imitate what they feel I was able to achieve. Inevitable there is an element of frustration to their clinic experience. I believe this is because there is something very fundamental about learning they students often don’t appreciate.

 

In order to be able to do something that requires even a modicum of skill, they need to have a clear understanding of what it is they are trying to do. Knowledge must always precede ability or as Harry Whitney says “understanding is always ahead of ability.”

 

We must first understand what we are trying to do and why we are trying to do it in order to be able to learn how to do it. It’s the nature of learning. Therefore our understanding is always ahead of our ability to do something and our skills never catch up to our understanding if the student continues to evolve.

 

Many people have an intellectual understanding of what I try to teach them, but then frustration sets in at their lack of ability to transfer that understanding into action. It is such a common experience of many clinic goers. I believe this frustration can only be overcome by battling through the early stages of clumsiness. It’s only by doing and more doing that a person ever gets passed the frustration and transforms it into ability.

 

I recall when I first tried snow skiing. Aussies are not known for their natural ability on skis and I was a stereotypical example of that. I had an intellectual understanding of what I needed to do, but it was only by falling on my backside over and over and over that I was able to transform frustration into ability. The skiing lessons gave me the understanding I needed before I could ski, but the persistent falling down gave me the physical skill I needed to turn knowledge into skill.

 

This principle continues to be true for each of us. Still today I have a greater understanding of horsemanship and horses than I do ability. It will always be that way and it is an inevitable part of the learning path. Nobody escapes it. So everybody needs to treat lessons, clinics and workshops as libraries and not medical centres.

 

In regard to this idea of knowledge preceding ability, one of the most important things I hope people get out of my clinics is a better understanding about the concept of having a clear picture in their mind of what it should look like when a horse gets it right (or close to right). So many people ask a horse a question without first knowing what the answer should feel/look like. However, without first knowing what good change should feel like, it’s not possible to know what change we should be releasing for.

 

This inability to have a clear picture in the rider’s mind inevitably leads to confusion in the horse’s mind. It’s not possible to be consistent in our presentation to a horse if we don’t have a clear and consistent grasp of the answer before we ask the question.

 

This may seem completely obvious at first, but my experience of teaching has convinced me that people don’t give this concept a lot of thought. Before asking something of a horse, we should know what we want the response to feel and look like so we know what we are releasing for.

 

To summarize the elements that I think people should understand before attending a clinic are:

 

(1) The value of clinics is only fulfilled by our commitment to putting to work the ideas we learned at a clinic. A clinic should be treated like a library resource.

 

(2) We will never be able to match our intellectual understanding with our ability to do things with a horse

 

and

 

(3) A person needs to learn to understand the changes they are looking for before presenting an idea to a horse.

 

I’m sure there are other tips that I could offer to help people before going to a clinic. And I’m sure I will talk about some of those in future posts. But for now I urge people to give the above concepts a degree of thought and I think it will help better prepare you for any clinic.

 

Neal Kyer took this photo. I think it fairly answers those critics who question my resumé and qualifications for teaching horsemanship J


Lazy Horses and Competition

Just about every time I look out across the paddock at home, I see seven horses grazing lazily, snoozing under a tree, laying in the sun or just standing around staring at nothing. My horses certainly don’t appear to be workaholics. Even when they are told crossly to clear the way by another horse, there is usually just enough effort being expended to create the minimum amount of space to avoid an even sterner warning. Occasionally there will see a burst of enthusiasm as they blast across the 30-acre paddock at high speed when they are feeling particularly good on a cool-ish day. But even then it seems to take such a serious toll on my horses daily allocation of effort that they spend the rest of the day doing nothing but eating to recover from that crazed 30 seconds of strain.

 

In a nutshell, my horses are incredibly lazy in their natural habitat. But I don’t think this is an unusual. I see the same behaviour in other people’s horses. In my experience, most horses spend most of their time doing very little. The exception seems to be when a horse carries a lot of emotional baggage with them 24hours a day. Those types of horses often flip from doing nothing to explosive bursts of energy and back to doing nothing many times a day. It’s like they suddenly wake up and realize the ghost of their ancestors are chasing them, and then its over. But that’s a discussion for another time. For the most part, the average horse is pretty much a minimalist when it comes to putting out an effort. It’s usually only anxiety that provokes them to have a surge of energy when they are left to their own thoughts.

 

With that being said, the question that comes to my mind is can we ask a horse to put out a lot of effort without feeling anxious or worried? Can a horse approach its physical limit of output and still feel okay?

 

This question has important consequences for how we view the ethics of competition or extreme horse activities.

 

Competition and the nature of humans to push the limits, have led to the breeding and training of horses to perform outside their normal limitations. The desire for horses to jump higher, run faster, endure 1000kms races, perform exaggerated gaits and extreme postures etc has caused us to want horses to work at levels they were never physically or mentally evolved to do. But humans are an inventive species and we find ways to out smart evolution.

 

If you examine the things we ask horses to do, it is easy to conclude that these are things a horse would never choose to do of its own volition. A horse would not jump over a 2m fence if it didn’t feel it had to. No horse would choose to piaffe if anxiety did not create it. No horse would enter a skirmish with other horses bumping and stumbling around it just to chase a polo ball, if it didn’t feel it had to. No horse would volunteer to stay in the arena with a raging bull charging at it. No horse would choose to spin around and around at a fast speed unless it had a brain aneurysm. Yet, these are things we breed and train horses to do.

 

I recall an interview with a racehorse trainer in Hong Kong. He was asked what made the horses run so fast. He replied they ran fast because of their fear.  He said horses are basically lazy and it is only by exploiting their need to run when they are afraid that we can make them run so fast.

 

But it is not just about competition that I am referring to (although the desire to compete is one of the biggest culprits). We see the same issue when we apply any form of pressure to produce a lot of effort from a horse. For example, asking a horse to suddenly take off at high speed to run down a cow or pull a very heavy load or perform ‘airs above the ground’ like a capriole.

 

When we ask a horse to perform beyond it’s own normal limits, I think there is probably always an element of anxiety associated with that. Sometimes this is not just about provoking a horse to put out a large amount of energy. Sometimes it is to suppress that energy. For example, no horse evolved to not react when a crowd throws firecrackers under its feet, as in the case of Police horses. Yet we suppress their natural flight instinct in order to train them not to react by shutting them down. In the process of training this we teach horses the futility of expressing their fear. We hardly ever eradicate the anxiety we just hide it away.

 

I’m not making judgments about the right and wrong of this. I’m just trying to point out that when we ask a horse to operate outside normal limits, there is inevitably a fair degree of anxiety associated with it. You never see a horse performing at top level that feels completely relaxed. It is the nature of the performing at an elite level. In fact, many people try to bring out the anxiety in order to make the performance even more exaggerated and expressive.

 

Rider Fear

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to people being effective and better horse people is fear. Most of my clients are middle age and female, but they are not the only ones who fall prey to the demon voice in their head that says, “what if he….”. Some are young and some are male – although the men seem more determined to ignore the voices in their head

 

Before I go on too much further I want to discuss a little about the nature of fear. Firstly, fear does not have to be rational. In fact, I believe in most cases fear is irrational. I remember a client who owned two horses. One was a gelding she had owned for many years and had a habit of prancing and dancing with the occasional rearing episode when it was separated from other horses during a ride. The other was a mare she had only owned a couple of months, but was calm and polite amid even the most challenging rides. Yet, my client was very nervous of riding the mare and completely at ease with the ‘nutty’ gelding. It made no sense to me, but her fear of riding the quiet mare was real to her.

 

The second thing is that there appears to be a stigma assigned to fear. People seem to be ashamed of their fear and hide it like the uncle the family doesn’t talk about anymore. It’s the black sheep of emotions. I have witnessed certain horse clinicians publicly criticize and attempt to shame people who have been afraid at their clinics. It felt like the message the clinician was saying was that their fear made them less of a horse person and unworthy of being at their clinic.

 

But I believe fear is a very important emotion. Without fear the human race would be extinct. It’s what stops us from walking blindly in front of traffic and parachutists from jumping out of planes without their chute simply because it is just too much bother to wear one.

 

Nobody should feel ashamed of being afraid and nobody should feel like they have to apologize for being afraid. People don’t choose to be afraid of riding or horses and if it was simply a matter of getting over it, they would.

 

Thirdly, I want to say that I feel that people who say they have never been afraid of a horse fall into 3 categories in my view. They are maybe lying. Lots of men fall into this category – especially men who are professional horsemen. Secondly, they may not have worked with enough horses to meet the horse that scares them. And lastly, they are too stupid to know they should have been afraid. This category should be prevented from ever breeding other humans who may carry the ‘stupid’ gene. If this gene were allowed to proliferate the human race would die out in a few generations.

 

I have certainly met a couple of horses in my life that have scared the manure out of me. It didn’t stop me from working with them because it was the job I was employed to do at the time. But if I didn’t need the money at the time I would have found any reason to avoid it.

 

I think it is important that all of us have a little chicken in us. It will keep us safe and alive. It makes us cautious to avoid doing really stupid things.

 

However, there is a difference between fear making us cautious and making us paralyzed. When I meet a student who is afraid of their horse it is not my aim to eliminate their fear. I want them to hold on to enough that makes them take the time to cross all the ‘t’s’ and dot all the “i’s” and not be cavalier.

 

The hard part is to liberate students from enough of their fear so that they can be effective in helping their horses. I believe the secret to this is giving them a better awareness of their horses thoughts and emotions AND the tools to change those thoughts and emotions if they don’t like them.

 

If a person can see the worry building up inside their horse before it spills over and comes out through their actions, they can be more effective in quelling any trouble that might follow. The earlier, the better. This takes time for people to learn. It takes a commitment to looking beyond what a horse is doing and into what it is thinking and feeling. However it is not magic, as some people seem to think. It just requires a little help with seeing what is before you and then spending hours and hours and hours observing.

 

Once a person is aware of a horses “cup of worry” (as Harry Whitney calls it) filling up, they then need to know how to empty the cup. Again, this is a learned skill that comes with good coaching and the time necessary to learn those skills.

 

Horses have a tremendous capacity to switch off their emotional concerns if they have a good reason – like the trouble has passed. People who carry fear need to appreciate this fact. Once a horse lets go of his worry, all is right with the world once again. With a little training we can learn how to help a horse calm its emotions.

 

The first thing I do with every horse is to estimate how much worry is inside. My job then becomes to eliminate as much of that trouble as I can because worry in a horse is an obstacle to learning. There is no bigger responsibility than to help a horse feel better. This is just as true of people.

 

When I see a person carrying a truck load of fear, my job should be to help them be more aware of their horse’s emotions and then teach them the ability to change the emotions they don’t like. It takes time and commitment on the part of students, but it is something that the average horse person can learn. Time and commitment not only develops the skills to see and alter the trouble inside their horse, but it also gives them the confidence to trust themselves to stay safe. It is the confidence to trust our own judgment and skills with a horse that crushes the fear that paralyzes us.

 

Fear is not something to be ashamed of. It can be used to help our horses by turning it from a negative that interferes with our enjoyment and learning to a positive that keeps us safe and builds our confidence. But it takes a lot of work.

Colt Starting Clinics

I want to say something about a subject I have been tempted to write about for a long time, but feel a little fearful opening the conversation. I know this is going to cause considerable anger among some of you. However, I feel it needs to be said irrespective of whom it offends or upsets.

 

In recent years there has been a growing public backlash against some of the less attractive aspects of the horse world.

 

The horse loving public has begun to rage against some of the extreme practices used to train Tennessee Walking horses for competition. The use of soring of legs and weighted shoes has rightly caused outrage. Similarly, in the world of dressage the public has been very vocal against the practice of hyperflexion or rolkur, where a horse’s neck is vertically over bent in an attempt to induce submission and suppleness. There have been numerous articles published in prestigious dressage magazines and petitions to the Fédération Equestre Internationale demanding the practice be stopped.

 

Well, I think it is now about time there was similar public outrage and backlash in the horsemanship world. I’m talking about outrage against the practice of starting horses in 3 or 4 days clinics. I’m talking about what has become known as colt starting clinics.

 

It’s time this practice was re-examined and its ethics questioned in the light of what is best for the horses. I believe a good argument can be made that colt starting clinics contradict one of the most important principles of good horsemanship ie, take the time it takes..

 

Before you burn an effigy of me and come to my home with pitchforks in hand, let me explain.

 

Colt starting clinics grew out of the practice of starting horses on commercial ranches (in the USA) or stations (in Australia) in just a few days. On a ranch, there was an economic necessity to take as short a time as possible to get a horse ride-able enough to perform the barebones of ranch work. Then they would continue their education every day while on the job. Ranchers needed their horses started in just a few days instead of a few weeks because they could not afford to have horses and manpower tied up training horses for very long. It was an economic decision, not a decision based on what was best for the horses.

 

However, people that started those horses also worked with them every day while on the job. The process of turning those horses into good riding horses continued for days, weeks and months after they were ready to accept a rider.

 

Yet, at a colt starting clinic most riders are weekend or amateur riders who can only work with their horse as time allows between their real life and their jobs. They are not professional horse people who can work with the horse daily and carrying on just where the clinic left off.

 

I know some of you who have started your horses at clinics run by your favourite guru will be screaming at your computer displays that the colt starting clinic was the best experience of your life and your horse is brilliant because of it. But I bet nobody can claim that either their horse or themselves would have not been better served by spending a few weeks with a good trainer.

 

Nobody really believes they can do just as good job of starting a horse in 4 days than they can in 4 weeks. These days almost no trainers would spend only 3 or 4 days breaking in their own horse and then claim is was even close to being ready for the average rider. Yet, people pay large sums of money to take their horse to a colt starting clinic and pretend there is something more valuable to be gained from it by horse and rider than 4 weeks work with a good trainer.

 

If a person and their horse went to a trainer for starting and after 4 days the trainer said the horse was ready for them to take home and ride and it cost them $800-$1000, they would be furious. And they should be. Yet, they still go to colt starting clinics where they are only 1 person out of a dozen or more other participants and receive almost no individual attention.

 

I am not so concerned about people choosing to spend their time and money with colt starting clinics. That’s their business. But I am concerned about the damage I see done to their horses at such clinics. Colt starting clinics are more about the people and getting a horse to be obedient. They have very little to do with good horsemanship or what is best for the horses.

 

I have attended many colt starting clinics, including those run by the most talented and revered clinicians in the industry. Yet, almost never did I see horses that were ready to go home and be ridden by their owners with a good understanding of the basics at the end. Virtually all of them would require going back and filling in the holes left by the hurried job.

 

I believe the two most stressful experiences a horse undergoes in life are weaning and breaking in. Both are life changing for a horse and require a massive shift in their view of how to get along in the world. Yet, it is the nature of colt starting clinics that horses are pushed very quickly to make that shift. They are not given the time and repetition to understand and absorb each lesson that would enable them to actually feel okay inside. Instead starting horses in 3 or 4 days exploits the submissive nature of a horse that allows people to forcefully impose their will.

 

The majority of training seen at colt starting clinics involves a reliance on flooding techniques. I don’t care who you want to name, every single trainer who starts a bunch of horses in 3 or 4 days for the public, overwhelms horses by flooding them with pressure. It’s universal and the only way to get a horse so submissive in such a short time. Instead of a horse actually learning and understanding what is happening and feeling comfortable with the process, it learns the futility of arguing and gives up. Colt starting clinics exploit the amazing nature of horses to want to get along. Colt starting clinics may benefit people, but it costs horses.

 

In addition there is the safety factor to be considered. If you have ever ridden or watched a colt starting clinic you’ll have witnessed a dozen or more stressed horses loose in a round yard. You’ll have seen people getting bucked off or nearly bucked off and horses running into each other, kicking at each other etc. When there are several horses in a round yard together and one breaks loose, there is sure to be a high level of danger for horse and human.

 

The bottom line is that colt starting clinics are a bad idea – full stop. Breaking in a horse in a few days had is purpose on a commercial ranch, but there is no need for it for the average rider who has the ability to take things at a pace that best suits the horse. Trainers are always saying, “take the time is takes.”

 

Now I will step off my soapbox and wait for the deluge of criticism and outrage.