Monday, June 2, 2014

LIght Hands Horsemanship

Dan and I were so glad that we made the decision to attend Light Hands Horsemanship this year.  It isn’t like we haven’t wanted to be there in the past.  May is an incredibly busy time in the lives of a large animal veterinarian in North Idaho.  We work long hard days getting horses ready for the busy riding season, welcoming new lives into the world and helping to create new lives to welcome next spring.  With the busy rush of work it is easy to tell yourself that next year, or maybe the year after we can find the time to breakaway and attend this annual event.  When we heard that this year’s clinic would be the last held at the gorgeous Intrepid farms we knew that we were out of “next years”. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this event I will attempt to paint the picture of what has been happening here at this special place for the past 8 years. There is a revolution taking place in horsemanship and Light Hands Horsemanship is at the forefront of that revolution.  What you wont see at LHH is a lot of flashy music and gimmicky tack and colts getting broke in 30 minutes.  You won't see anybody, anywhere standing on a horse's back with a leaf blower.  What you will see are the most accomplished horseman in the country today all with a single goal in mind;  developing harmony with the horse through communication and understanding of the horse's nature.  It's natural horsemanship at it's best and purest and it comes in a variety of flavors to suit the needs of any rider.  

This annual event began through a fortuitous event in Brazil that brought Dr. Robert Miller, DVM, Eitan Beth-Helachmy, Lester Buckley, Jack Brainard and Jon Ensign all to the same expo.  Art Perry, an accomplished horseman and multiple world champion in the Morgan horse industry was also there and so impressed with the event that he approached Dr. Miller about hosting a similar clinic at his farm in Santa Ynez, California that would showcase the horsemanship of these fine horseman and help bring it to the world.

The premise for this clinic is a little different than some of the others that you may have attended.  This is a small venue with 200 participants.  It is a very open format where you are free to watch and learn from the presenters but also to sit down and have some dinner with them and get to know them as well.  This is an incredibly giving and open group of horsepeople.  All of these presenters have one thing in common; they are there for the horse.  These are people who are passionate about horsemanship and learning and getting to be the very best that they can be.

Dr. Miller is an expert in equine behavior and is so good at explaining this creature that we all know and love.  Each day starts with an engaging and eye opening discussion in equine behavior and how understanding, I mean REALLY understanding, how the horse ticks can improve our relationship and affect how we interact with the horse.  This year Dr. Miller also discussed the damage that we do to our horses, primarily by starting them too early and riding them to hard.  As a veterinarian I found his comments to be spot on and echoed my own thoughts on the subject.  To hear him passionately making his point that horses should be mature and grown prior to being started I don’t understand how anyone could disagree.  He sited page after page of classic literature from horseman dating back thousands of years all repeating the same thing over and over again.  Over riding and over training young horses under the age of 5 will lead to premature breakdown of the horse and permanent damage of joints, ligaments and tendons.  Many of the more damaging trends in the show rings were discussed as well such as the low head sets seen in both Western Pleasure and today's reining pens as well as Rolkur in competitive dressage.  

Jack Brainard is a legend in horsemanship.  He is a Texas horseman that has been riding, training, and showing horses in various events for almost a century.  He is a master in teaching timing of cues with footfall patterns and the importance of foundation.  Listening to Jack explain the nuances of a solid foundation and how each of these maneuvers needs to be perfect in order for a horse be considered good and broke was so simple and so powerful at the same time.  Jack is so friendly and approachable and so giving of his knowledge.  He has been doing this for 70 years or so and is still as interested and passionate about teaching as he ever was.  I was sitting next to him as he was talking with Shelia Varian as he discussed how beautiful her horse was.  It was obvious to me that he still marvels at the beauty and grace of these animals we love as much as the rest of us do.  A true gentleman and horseman.

Shelia Varian of Varian Arabians is one of my personal heroes for many, many reasons.  She is an inductee to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and an accomplished bridle horseman.  Her Arabians are some of the most beautiful horses I have ever seen.  She is also a character as well as a lady as all good cowgirls should be!  She spoke at length on the vaquero tradition and the gear that is used to prepare these bridle horses.  She believes in the tradition and the methods used only she adds her own lighter touch.  She is able to embrace some of the newer horsemanship principles and incorporate that into her horsemanship while staying true to the heart of the vaquero style that she has been practicing for her entire life.  To hear her talk about learning from Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance while still using traditional gear speaks to where I hope to take my horsemanship.  You can stay true to the heart of a tradition and still stay open minded to the new things that you are introduced to and pick and choose what works for you and your horse.  Having shown horses for many many years she understands having to train to a deadline and adhere to the crazy trends in the show ring but also that for horses that are not going into the show ring how taking your time and training to the horse’s schedule will give you a better horse.  Shelia hasn’t been well lately and I was so worried that she would be too ill to ride this year.  I’m so thankful for the health that she enjoyed this weekend and for the opportunity I had to meet one of my heroes.

Jon Ensign is a Montana horseman that has trained under Buck Brannaman.  He is a master colt starter and is one of the softest, quietest horseman on the ground.  He seems to be able to read his horse’s minds and present his ideas to the horse in such a way that even a nervous colt like the one he had at the event this year makes quick changes and settles in to go to work.  Jon is as humble and approachable as you would expect any Montana cowboy to be.  He has practical tips and builds a great solid working horse in a light and easy way.  I look forward to the opportunity to ride with Jon soon.  Colt starting is an art form and Jon has it mastered.  It's easy to see that he gets a colt soft and confident without over desensitizing and making them dull or nervous. 

Richard Winters is an accomplished horseman.  He is a great communicator and makes people feel they are not alone in their struggles along the journey to better horsemanship.  He easily communicates the worries and fears that we all have from time to time and  he is excellent at  addressing issues both in the mind of the rider and in the horse.  He spoke at length on Saturday about being a good leader and coach for your horse and taking responsibility for your horse’s growth and learning.  It was inspiring to remember that our horses do look to us to be strong leaders for them to succeed to their full potential.

Lester Buckley is a Texas born horseman that now spends most of his time starting colts at the Parker Ranch in Hawaii.  Of all the talented horseman at this event he is by far the most versatile.  Lester has started colts on the King Ranch and has spent time cowboying.  He is also an accomplished dressage rider and eventer.  It does not matter what style of riding you do you can learn from this impressive horseman.  There is something magical that happens when Lester gets on a horse.  I’m not sure I can describe it exactly, and if you aren’t a rider you may not notice it, but this man was born to sit a horse.  This weekend Lester had his 4 year old Warmblood stallion flown to Santa Ynez.  He was recently imported from Germany and only recently released from quarantine for international travel.  He arrived to the farm after midnight on Friday and was a little worked up by the time Lester was due to work with him.  He was a big beautiful powerful horse and much more than I would have liked to have climbed up on.  Lester did a little ground work explaining how his goals for this horse were a little different than what we are looking for in a good ranch horse.  He got what I would consider to be minimal respect and “checking in” from this young stallion before donning helmet and climbing aboard.  Once on his back it was magic.  He was able to reassure and direct this stallion and move him around the round pen with only a few little bobbles.  I held my breath for the first few minutes then just relaxed and watched an amazing horseman quietly direct this youngster under saddle.  He had to point out what he was doing with his aids because you sure couldn’t see it.

Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  Ah, what is there more I can say about Eitan that I haven’t already said somewhere before?  He truly is the master.  When you talk about control of body parts and soft hands the rest of us just dabble in these things.  Eitan can quietly shape his horses to his pleasure and direct that energy through each foot individually until horse and rider are moving as a single until.  Add to that the development and gift that is Cowboy Dressage and he is an inspiration to every one of us that strives to be a better horseman.  Eitan is always learning and humble and will tell you that he is still growing and changing how he rides, even after all his time in the saddle and accomplishments under his belt.  What Eitan does with a horse is unlike any other horseman I have had the pleasure of watching.  I’m not even sure how to describe it or who to compare it to.  If you haven’t seen him ride yourself, I encourage you to find a way to watch him ride sometime and I highly recommend that you watch him in person because the nuances don’t come through a video like sitting 4 feet from him while he lightly does a piaffe.  The only horseman that I can even think to compare him to is the legendary Nuno Olivaria.

I think it is safe to say that greatness attracts greatness.  The people in attendance were all horsemen in their own rights. Monty Roberts stopped by on Saturday just to say hi to his long time friends.  Ernie Morris, a legend in the vaquero world and exceptional artist and gear maker, was on hand all weekend to impart his own wisdom for those that would pull up a chair and sit a spell.  Katrina Sanders, an up and coming horsewoman in her own right, gave a presentation on the history of the vaquero that was wonderfully full of the extensive research she has done on the subject.  Then she spent the rest of the weekend talking to folks interested in learning more about this rich history and art of horsemanship.   

So when my friends ask me what I learned this past weekend at LHH, I find myself having trouble putting the experience into bullet points or take home messages.  It's not little things, it's big things.  It's the struggle for lightness and softness.  It's seeing what that can look like if you really work at it.  It's the feeling, more like a revival than a clinic, that kindles your fire and makes you want to be a better horseman.  It's putting the horse first and foremost in your thoughts.  And most of all, it's being around people who feel about the horse like you do.  Dan and I will never forget this weekend.  To our friends, I'm sorry I can't tell you more than that.  All I can say is you really have to go for yourselves.  

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