When I first trained a horse for somebody else I was a punk 17-year-old who thought I could ride anything.
I still would have been the first to tell you I wasn't a professional. Nor could I teach them much beyond go forward, go left, go right, stop and back. I just had complete and utter confidence in my ability to stick it out as a rider.
As I progressed as a trainer I started to study John Lyons, Monte Roberts and of course, Ray Hunt.
During that time I began to break down each step of a horse's training. I would teach them to be caught, haltered, how to stand tied, how to lead and so on, sticking with each step until it was soft and good before I progressed to the next one.
I then went even farther, and began to break each task down into a set of steps before I would progress to the next one. I waited for the ear flick before I asked for the eye contact, before I asked for the hesitation and so on.
I spent a lot of time working on pressure from the ground. How many steps into a hip before the horse moved, did my whole body create the same reaction as a wave of my hand?
My "feel" increased by leaps and bounds.
After a while (when I was starting to get busy) I learned to combine steps to get moving faster. I learned I needed to get riding in order to get paid.
I taught my horses to stand stock still while I got on. I taught them to move a single foot of my choosing over a pole. I figured out my rhythms and pressures. I learned the subtleties of a good seat.
My horses progressed very slowly, yet steadily. They were broke, broke, broke. You could walk them over tarps and sling a milk jug around them on a rope.
They were nicely tuned to me and would extend the same courtesy to their owners.
I became busier.
Then I saw a reined cowhorse event.
I almost lost my mind.
I had never witnessed such a high degree of horsemanship. The horses were magic and the cow work was beyond my comprehension.
Karma plunked a horse in my lap who was made for the sport.
Out of ignorance and wild desire I started on my path to learn how to create a reined cowhorse.
As I progressed in my obsession I found out the little details I had clung onto as a trainer were completely obsolete in my new world.
Our horses were shown before they were particularly broke.
I assumed it was because they had so much to learn there was no time for the niceties I had learned was so important.
I'm sure I told clients and friends this as the years went by and I was beginning to get a handle on the cowhorse thing.
I would have a colt ready to ride within three days. There were trainers I rode with who could get on the first day. The wild young thing may not let me touch his feet, pet his nose or lead him, but he was ready to throw a leg over.
I might not be able to catch him, he might leap and bolt and skitter on the end of his lead rope at the sights around him, but he was going to accept a rider.
We started to train the rest as we went.
I remember when I first started to ride two-year-olds for the Big K. Sometimes they would cower and leap in their stalls when I came to halter them.
They often jumped and blew while I saddled them.
They shook and stamped as I wrapped their legs.
They opened their mouth for the bit, shivering at the thought we might touch their ears. We didn't.
When I led them to the middle of the arena they would jump and start at the end of the reins, but never pull them taut.
I would check my cinch, my stirrups, my bridle and then crawl up.
The little babies would stand still, every muscle vibrating.
"Don't make him wait!" The Big K would call.
I would raise my hands over their necks, my reins loose and my seat as relaxed as I could make it. The colts would scoot forward as if they were trying to run out from under me.
We would find our lead and be off. The second the babies were loping they relaxed into big, perfect, very fast circles. All I had to do was look where I wanted them to be. Rarely did I need my reins or leg.
The little boogers ran like they were trains on a track, every foot exactly where it should be.
They would run with their heads up and their eyes bright.
It was absolute magic.
I threw everything I had away and became a sponge. I wanted my horses to ride like the Big K's.
Showing was simply a way to check my progress. I could compare against the others. I could hang with people who were trying to create the same magic I was.
I didn't start to question what I was doing until about a year before I started this blog.
If you have read since the beginning you have a pretty good idea of the problems, both moral and emotional I wrestled with.
I began to bring back some of my own training techniques. I spent up to two or three weeks getting a horse ready to ride.
They were despooked. I would handle the horse from one end to the other, over and over.
They weren't the same. I blamed the breeding.
But for some reason I didn't think through I left my yellow mare alone. She hates having her ears handled so I didn't. She doesn't like being stroked on her face so I didn't. She shivers, she spooks, she is so hyper vigilant she can make a person crazy.
She will leap in the air and buck like a loon on the end of her lead rope without ever pulling it tight.
My yellow mare spins like a whirling dervish. She slides deep and long, she drives into her bridle and pushes, her head down and her neck level as she flies through her circles. She is a soft and easy dream on a cow.
So everything started to click with my "Only make contact once" theory with my colt. I didn't know why I was doing this. I figured it was just a way for me to create a challenge on an extremely easy colt. I was having fun.
But this game is getting more serious. Because we'll be riding soon and I doubt I'll have handled him more than 20 times.
He's extremely sensitive. He really watches every move I make. He is mentally a colt who would normally be dull and quiet. Potentially bomb proof.
But for what I do I don't need bomb proof. I need an explosion.
The light bulb finally went off was while I was working a mare at the horse rescue. She is a little, stunted, probably could have been nice if she hadn't been starved, bitch of a mare.
She's one of those sneaky things who can strike like a snake over nothing. So I was working with her feet, teaching her to keep her weight on the leg closest to me unless I asked for her foot, and getting her ready to ride.
The last time I saw her the operator of the rescue, Julie, told me about a go round she had with her.
"I went to brush her face and she went crazy," the Julie told me.
"She must have pulled me around backwards for almost an hour before she finally let me brush her face."
I said OK and went to working with the mare. We had to back track a little because she kept hauling backwards every time I tried something she didn't want to do, but she eventually caved, let me pick up each foot with a rope and stroke each leg from top to bottom and was ready to ride.
On the way home my friend and former assistant Kathy asked me, "I couldn't believe you didn't say anything about brushing her face."
You see I hadn't touched her head at all except to halter her.
"Obviously she needs her horses to let her brush their faces. The needs are different here.Julie didn't hurt anything, I have to pay attention to what she wants."
I wish I could say my thoughts lined up like a bolt of lightening but they didn't.
I thought about how I need to start approaching things a little differently at the rescue. The horses there need to be happy and relaxed and looking for carrots when the city folk come out to visit.
They need to be potentially your best friend. They can't hurt Granny or the kids.
They need to be desensitized. They need to learn to tune out outside stimulus and tune me in.
Pleasure horses, trail horses, kid horses, they all need to tune out the outside world and internalize their focus. They need to mentally stay attached to their rider.
So they are rewarded for tuning out much of the sights and sounds around them. If the horse doesn't spook he gets a pet, a rest or a cookie. If he walks through the spooky stuff and tunes out the scariness he gets rewarded again. And so on.
The reward system is based on not reacting.
The reward system I learned as a cow horse trainer is based on reaction. We reward it by release.
Punishment comes to a horse who isn't reacting.
I taught my horses to not spook, or cross water, or put on the slicker, whatever, by ignoring the spazzing and rewarding the positive response.
I would ask them to stand by a fence post, try to pick up the slicker, they jump, I put them back on the post, pick up the slicker, they jump and so on. The point I make is the horse was told to stand by the post. The slicker means nothing. Eventually the colt will stand where he's told and I'll get the slicker on. He's learned to stand where he's told.
This is where the training can get rough. Except this is also where I started to learn to reward the correct effort with less contact.
I would imagine a 1/4 inch of air between my legs and my horse. I would pretend my reins were attached with thread.
My horses were taught to seek my 1/4 inch of air space.
When he stood by the post I released my reins and legs even more. I simply put on the slicker.
They were sensitized.
I have found that if I spend too much time teaching my horse to accept my hand on their ears or a brush in their face they become much quieter. They also start to learn to tune me out
My cowhorses work a lot on their own. If I react it's because I want an action, not inaction.
I ran this thought past the Big K and he said I was totally on the right track.
"I find the less I do the better I'm getting along with the youngsters," he told me.
Can you freaking imagine what those booger heads are like to crawl up on now that he's doing even less? I am so glad I'm just playing with my own horses.
So there's the beginning of my thoughts. I finally understand why we did things the way we did.
I have learned on my own to allow my horses to learn as we go. By just riding I'm getting lots done.
The best example I have of this nonsense is this one.
At my last barn there was a llama who lived down the road.
He would hide behind his little shed and then charge the horses as we went past. Great fun for him. My boss would hang on and get after the jumping horses until they learned to jig past sideways. Not my solution, but hey, you do what you can.
A client of mine spent hours leading the horse up to the fence and letting him smell the charging spitting llama. He started spooking sooner and sooner as she approached the beast. Why not? Every time he fretted she stepped down and started cooing and petting on him as she led him along.
I thought about it for awhile and approached it like the Big K had me go to buffalo.
My daughter and I rode out there and put our horses on that hairy, spitting, rotten thing like we were cutting. They reacted by working the llama. They were rewarded for being wired and alert. We sensitized them to the llama.
So lets dissect this thought.
I am NOT saying it's wrong to brush your horse's face. I'm just picking through how things work. It's fascinating to me.