Sunday, February 16, 2014

You know what they say about opinions. . .

There are so many wonderful things that I have learned about horsemanship since beginning to follow the vaquero tradition.  It’s been an awakening of sorts for me and has effected each and every thing that I do with my horses and my patients.  Every once in a while you come across something so profound and life altering that it changes the way you look at almost every single thing in your life.  My horsemanship journey has been that for me.  It’s a wonderful, uplifting, challenging and rewarding experience.
The downside is that you also become aware of all the things that people do to their horses each and every day that go against the grain of everything that you now hold dear.  Ignorance is truly bliss.  Sometimes I wish I could go back to my days of riding in a dropped noseband with draw reins on a Pelham bit.  I thought I was so terribly advanced at that point and had properly mastered all these great additions to my tack room.  I knew just how to use every gadget, tie-down, martingale and assorted training aid that I had at my disposal.  “Tricks of the trade” so to speak. 

Now I know that there are no tricks.  Fast fixes don’t exist.  Every single thing that we do with our horses either builds or destroys the relationship that we are trying to create.  Every single interaction with your horse is meaningful.  This is both a very lovely thought and a terribly heavy burden.  What if you are tired, and in a hurry or your mind is somewhere else, or (gasp) you are on the phone while you are handling your horse?  What if this time you let him yank the lead rope out of your hand or walk off while mounting or toss his head during bridling?  What if you just don’t have time to fix it today? 

What it means is that you will have to work twice as hard to fix it tomorrow and three times as hard if you wait until next week.  

Like a reformed smoker, or born again religious zealot I find myself harshly judgmental of my friends and clients.  I’m not trying to be, honestly.  It’s just that I believe I have found a better way for the horse and it is so hard for me to watch horses that I don’t think are getting a fair deal because they ALL deserve a fair deal.  My friends know that I am pretty vociferous about my opinions.  I will tell people what I feel most of the time.  So, I find myself biting my tongue so much more than I used to because I can’t blame folks for not knowing.  It hasn't been that long since I didn't know any better myself.  Like any new convert, I'm sure that fire will fade with time until I can smile benignly at folks and help them to the best of my ability.  I'm working hard on that. 

When I first started on this journey I was very frustrated with the lack of information available.  How come I can’t just go to one web page or join some trainer’s special member’s only group and get a box set of DVD’s so I could learn this more quickly?  That’s how this horsemanship thing is done nowadays. I am a member of the generation of instant gratification! I understand now why it isn't that way with this style of riding and training.  There are  instructors out there if you go and look. Like the guru on the mountaintop they know that if you are willing to go the extra mile to find the answer, you may just be worthy of that answer.   You have to want it and you have to be willing to learn it slowly and by feel so that you can develop your feel and relationship with your horse.  You also have to buck today’s standards.  You aren't going to fit in with the trends in the show pen, any show pen, (with the possible exception of Cowboy Dressage) if you decide to ride this path.  Your horse isn't going to be completely broke in 60 easy step by step days.  You aren't going to play games with your horse and you aren't going to lope him until he begs you not to lope another step.  You aren't going to jab him in the ribs with each stride to make him wait on you for each command.  You aren't going to have to buy any signature tack.  You aren't going to win any futurities.

You can see why it isn't stylish in this day and age. 

Here is what you are going to do if you seek to better your horsemanship and riding skill through learning and understanding the traditions of the old vaqueros and the lessons of classical horsemanship.  You are going to learn to have a respect, dare I say reverence for the horse.  In this day and age of demanding respect from the horse, few are remembering to give that respect right back to the horse.  It needs to be a two way street.

You are going to learn to take things as slowly as is needed for the horse to learn and understand what is asked of it.  This means allowing a horse’s mind and body to mature before asking it to work like an adult horse.  This means allowing the horse the time and freedom to learn to search out the answer.  It means that 30 days doesn't equal a level of training, but is nothing more than a benchmark for how much time it took you to get to wherever you are today. 

You are going to learn to give your horse a job.  Horses are contextual learners.  They understand lessons best when they are paired with a job that they understand.  Make your horse’s training periods relative to a job that they understand and they will learn much faster. 

You are going to learn to communicate more effectively with your horse. If your horse isn't understanding what you are asking, more pressure is not the answer.  Is the horse ignoring your leg, or your hands?  A bigger bit of larger spur isn't the solution.  The problem is in your poor timing and feel. 

I could go on and on but quite frankly it’s just depressing.  It reminds me of a conversation that Buster McLaury related that Ray Hunt once had with a fellow that had recently been at one of Ray’s clinics.  The gentleman was full of the excitement and conviction of the newly converted.  He was enamored of Ray and all he could get done with a horse with no fight, no gimmicks and no rodeo.  He passionately told Ray that he believed that this information, once it got out to all the people, would completely revolutionize the horse industry.  Everybody out there would want to be part of this and change how they were with their horse.  Ray just as adamantly said, no sir, it won’t.  The gentleman was confused and asked Ray what he meant.  He answered that the problem with changing the way people interact with horses is that it’s the people that have to change, not the horse, and he didn't believe that would ever happen.   He was right. At least as far as mainstream horsemanship is concerned.  

I want to help people to find out if this way of being with their horses is what is best for them and their horse. I'm very happy to converse at length about the ins and outs of the bosal and how to use it effectively for softness and collection and why a spade bit isn't the torture device it's made out to be.  But,  I find myself frustrated when asked my opinion on a gag bit or if this two year old's knees are closed enough to start.  I am in a unique position as an equine professional in that I  find myself asked opinions on horsemanship and training as part of my veterinary examinations.  I can guarantee my answer isn't always going to be what you want to hear and it is likely to be the exact opposite of what your trainer told you.  I have to be careful to state my opinions in a way that differentiates between medical advice and horsemanship advice, because like in our schools, horsemanship training theologies and cold hard science don't mix very well.  It makes it very difficult for me when I am asked to preform procedures or administer treatments that I believe fly in the face of the horse's welfare.  Especially when other veterinarians will happily do it without hesitation.  

I am in it for the horse.  From sun up to sun down, my husband and I eat, sleep and breath horses. (that sounds terrible, we don't eat horses, but you get my meaning, I'm sure.  Don't want to feed that rumor mill!)   We care for them from conception to the grave making their health and welfare our primary concern.  When I see practices that I believe to go against the overall welfare of the horse it's next to impossible for me to shut up about it.  But I do.  More often than you know.  So, just remember when you ask my opinion I'm likely to tell you exactly what I think.  Be sure you are ready for that.  


  1. Right on! I knew I chose you and Dan for your steady, always ready to discuss, open demeanor to be my go to Vet for my small but precious herd. Now I know why. Thank you and for ever more.. it IS all about the HORSE.

  2. This is a wonderful post. I know exactly what you mean. I find myself judging people all the time now that I'm convinced I've found the best possible way to work with horses. I always feel so bad for the horse when I see someone taking what I consider a totally misguided approach to fixing a training problem. And I too can't quite believe that anyone would choose any other way to work with horses if they knew this one existed. For me, the second I got a glimpse of the bridle horse tradition, I committed to it wholehearted and I've never looked back. And yet we do see people who are exposed to these concepts but don't 'convert.' I find it mystifying.

    Anyway, I love finding like-minded people. I'm looking forward to keeping up with your blog. :)